Othello (1604) has often been considered the most painful of Shakespeare's tragedies. The fall of a proud, dignified man, the murder of a graceful, loving woman, and the unreasoning hatred of a villain, have all evoked fear and pity in audiences throughout the centuries. If it lacks the cosmic grandeur of some of Shakespeare's other well-respected dramas, Othello nevertheless possesses a power that is perhaps more immediate and more strongly felt than that of his other plays.
Othello is also unique among Shakespeare's great tragedies in that it is set in a private world. The drama focuses on the passions and personal lives of its major figures. Othello has often been described as a tragedy of character, as the play's protagonist swiftly descends into a rage of jealousy that completely destroys his life.
With his dazzling display of villainy, the character Iago, the play's antagonist, has long fascinated students and critics of the drama. The relationship between Othello and Iago is another unusual feature of this work. With two such prominent characters so closely associated, audiences have trouble determining which of the two characters is the central figure in the play and, therefore, which one bears the greater responsibility for the tragedy.
Othello is believed to have first been performed in 1604 or perhaps in 1605. It is one of Shakespeare's most highly concentrated and tightly constructed tragedies. The play was written with no subplots and little humor to relieve the tension. Although Shakespeare adapted the plot of his play from the sixteenth-century Italian dramatist and novelist Giraldi Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, the English playwright focused his attention only on certain parts of Cinthio's story. The Italian's creation includes a series of ten interconnected short stories. Shakespeare's Othello is taken from just one of them, the one concerned with marital infidelity and a husband's revenge on his wife. Because of this tightly constructed structure, the play's ominous mood is heightened, and the threat to both Desdemona's innocence and to the love she and Othello share is made more terrifying
Although narrow in scope, Othello is widely regarded as the most moving of all of Shakespeare's great tragedies. As a matter of fact, rumors abound that during some of the earliest productions of this play, audiences shouted out warnings to the actor playing Othello and threatened to bring harm to Iago.
Although Othello is described as a Moor, a citizen of northern Africa, the play is not overtly about race. In Shakespeare's time, black actors were not used in the role. However, critics continue to debate if race is crucial to the play or if it is merely incidental. Some have stated that the color of the skin makes no difference when it comes to human psychology. What is important in this play is that Othello is a man of high esteem, a victorious hero, who succumbs to the manipulations of a shrewd and devious man. The results are devastating, horrifying, and, of course, very dramatic.
Act 1, Scene 1
Othello opens in Venice, with Iago (a low ranking officer in the Venetian army) and Roderigo (a weak man who is in love with Desdemona) discussing their bitterness toward Othello. Roderigo is angry because of Othello's marriage to Desdemona. Iago is distraught because Othello has promoted Cassio to the rank of lieutenant instead of promoting Iago. In the first few lines of this scene, Iago is already scheming a plan of revenge.
Iago encourages Roderigo to rouse Brabantio, a senator and the father of Desdemona, to tell him that Desdemona has eloped with Othello. Upon hearing this, the outraged Brabantio has his house searched, and when it is confirmed that Desdemona is gone, Brabantio is at his wits' end.
Several of the play's themes are introduced in this first scene. First, there is the theme of jealously. Iago has been passed over for a promotion and is jealous of Cassio, the man who has won Othello's favor. Roderigo is jealous because another man has won the hand of Desdemona. A second theme that is introduced is that of the so-called Other—the foreigner, the outsider, or the one who lives on the edges of society. Othello's character is most involved in this theme. To emphasize Othello's "otherness," just in the first scene alone, he is called the "lascivious Moor," "thicklips," "an old black ram," and "an extravagant and wheeling stranger."
The theme of deception is also brought out in this opening scene. First, Roderigo feels deceived by Iago because Roderigo has been paying Iago to put him in good favor with Desdemona. It is obvious that Iago has failed to do this. Desdemona's father feels his daughter, who has run away with Othello without asking his consent, has deceived him. Another act of deceit occurs when Iago confesses that he only pretends to love Othello.
Act 1, Scene 2
Othello makes his first appearance in act 1, scene 2. Iago is telling Othello that he has heard people talking badly about him. He warns Othello of possible trouble; all the while he is conning Othello, trying to convince Othello of his devotion and thus winning his way into Othello's trust.
Cassio appears and tells Othello that the duke is looking for him. There is a military threat against Cyprus. When Brabantio appears, Iago warns Othello to beware. Othello faces everyone without fear, demonstrating his confidence, his willingness to stand up to the enemy or the accuser, whichever must be met.
Brabantio curses Othello, claiming that Othello has cast a spell on his daughter. Othello asks Brabantio what he wants him to do. Brabantio says he wants Othello put in prison. Othello suggests that if he did so, the duke would be upset. Brabantio realizes that the affairs of state are quite serious and must be attended to. So he concludes that the duke can decide what to do with Othello.
By now, the audience is quite aware of Iago's character. He is a manipulator and out for no one's benefit but his own. Othello has demonstrated, on the other hand, that he fits none of the negative descriptions that have been used to portray him.
Act 1, Scene 3
The next scene is at the duke's council chamber. The council members are discussing reports of a Turkish fleet heading for Cyprus, which is a Venetian colony. Messengers are bringing word of how many Turkish ships approach. When the duke acknowledges Othello as "Valiant Othello," it is obvious that Othello is seen quite differently by these people than he was seen previously through the eyes of Iago, Roderigo, or Brabantio.
Brabantio wastes no time in explaining that his daughter has been stolen from him. The duke is shocked and promises to punish the thief. The duke says Brabantio can "read in the bitter letter / After your own sense," meaning that Brabantio can set the punishment. The duke is, of course, surprised to discover that the so-called thief is Othello.
Very graciously and humbly, Othello pleads his case. He provides a brief background of his life and how he fell in love with Desdemona and she with him. The duke, wanting Othello vindicated because the country needs him to fight the Turks, determines that the council needs more proof that Desdemona has indeed been stolen. Desdemona is called to stand before the council.
Desdemona arrives and acknowledges that she is divided between her devotion to her father and her love of her husband, Othello. She tells her father, "And so much duty as my mother showed / To you, preferring you before her father, / So much I challenge that I may profess / Due to the Moor, my lord." The duke needs to hear no more. Desdemona has settled the case.
The duke appoints Othello as governor of Cyprus and tells him to prepare to leave. Desdemona asks to go to Cyprus with Othello, which the duke allows. Before the scene ends, Brabantio scoffs at Othello one more time, telling him, "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father, and may thee." This is a warning that will later haunt Othello.
The scene ends with Iago manipulating Roderigo. Roderigo is ready to drown himself for he sees no hope in winning the hand of Desdemona. Iago, however, needs Roderigo for his scheme, so he challenges Roderigo to be a man and hang in there. Desdemona and Othello will tire of one another, Iago predicts and asks Roderigo to stay with him so they can both enjoy their revenge on Othello.
After Roderigo leaves, Iago talks to himself (in aside to the audience), relating how he thinks Roderigo a fool. He also reiterates how he hates Othello. Iago has heard rumors that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia. This gives Iago all the more reason to hurt Othello. He will make Othello believe that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Iago believes this will be easy to do because "The Moor is of a free and open nature, That thinks men honest that but seem to be so, / And will as tenderly be led by th' nose / As asses are."
Act 2, Scene 1
Act 2 begins in Cyprus where a violent storm is raging out at sea. Montano, the former governor of Cyprus, is concerned that all of Othello's ships might have capsized. Shortly afterward, Montano is informed that the storm has scattered the Turkish forces, thus ending the war.
Cassio enters and demonstrates, through his conversation with Montano, that he is truly devoted to Othello. The audience learns that Cassio is very approving of Othello's marriage to Desdemona. This makes it clear that Cassio is not in any way involved in Iago's plan.
Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, and Roderigo arrive in Cyprus. Desdemona is worried about Othello, who has not yet made an appearance on the island. Whereas Cassio has been displayed as a gentlemen, with his concern for Othello's safety and his compliments toward Desdemona, Iago appears crude. Iago belittles his wife and then criticizes all of womanhood, stating that women "are pictures out of doors, / Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your kitchens, / Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, / Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds." In other words, women are deceitful, noisy, and undomesticated and are good only for sex.
Othello finally arrives and makes a public display of his love for Desdemona. "I cannot speak enough of this content. / It stops me here; it is too much of joy," Othello says. This spurs Iago to mention in an aside to the audience, "O, you are well tuned now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music." Iago is determined to ruin this love. He reaffirms his desire to arouse Othello's jealousy and enlists Roderigo in the plot to discredit Cassio. He furthers his plan, telling Roderigo that he believes Desdemona has fallen for Cassio. Roderigo cannot believe this, but Iago changes Roderigo's mind. He churns Roderigo's anger so that Roderigo wants to challenge Cassio in a fight. If Roderigo can do this, Iago tells him, "So shall you have a shorter journey to your desires by the means I shall then have to prefer them."
Act 2, Scene 2
Othello decrees a night of revelry to celebrate his marriage and Cyprus's escape from the Turkish attack. This is a very brief scene.
Act 2, Scene 3
Othello sends Cassio out to guard his house, and Othello and Desdemona go to bed. Cassio says that Iago will keep watch with him. Othello replies: "Iago is most honest." Of course, the audience is fully aware that this is far from the truth and this statement makes Othello look very vulnerable.
When Cassio goes out and meets with Iago, Iago describes how enticing Desdemona is. Whereas Iago describes Desdemona in terms of sexuality, Cassio talks of her as being modest, exquisite, and delicate. When Iago invites Cassio to drink with him, Cassio says he becomes easily intoxicated. Iago uses this to get Cassio drunk and to involve him in a public brawl.
When Othello arrives, he turns to Iago to find who is responsible for the brawl. Iago, feigning reluctance, nonetheless insinuates Cassio. Othello punishes the lieutenant by taking away his recently won promotion. The audience knows, once again, that Othello has made a serious mistake.
Act 3, Scene 1
Standing in front of Othello's castle is sad Cassio, who is trying to beg Emilia to plead his case to Desdemona. Iago tells Cassio that he will make sure Othello is not in the castle so Cassio can meet with Desdemona alone.
Act 3, Scene 2
Another brief scene in which Othello gives papers to Iago to post, then the audience sees Othello leave the castle, setting up the scene to follow, in which Desdemona is left in the castle without Othello.
Act 3, Scene 3
In the garden of the castle, Desdemona greets Cassio. Cassio wins Desdemona's attention. Desdemona agrees to plead his case with Othello. As Cassio leaves, Iago and Othello approach. Iago takes advantage of Cassio's being seen slipping out of the garden where Desdemona stands. Iago says, pretending to be talking mostly to himself: "Ha! I like not that." When Othello asks what Iago is referring to, Iago pretends to dismiss his own words. But when Othello asks if that was Cassio, Iago launches full-heartedly into his scheme.
Othello greets his wife, and she asks Othello to forgive Cassio. Othello does not commit to it but also does not deny he will.
Desdemona leaves, and Iago digs deeper, planting more suspicions in Othello's mind, asking him questions about Cassio, such as: "Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, / Know of your love?" When Othello asks why Iago wants to know, Iago downplays the question, "But for a satisfaction of my thought; / No further harm." Of course, harm is exactly what Iago is after. And so the conversation continues.
Iago's villainy begins to work on Othello in two ways. First, Iago feeds Othello insinuations that Desdemona has been unfaithful, creating emotional havoc for Othello. And second, Iago feeds Othello lies concerning his own faithful service as a friend to Othello, when in fact Iago hates Othello. On both accounts, Othello believes Iago. Iago is very good in what he does. He even warns Othello not to be jealous. "It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on." Iago then tells Othello to not succumb to his thoughts but rather to seek proof of Desdemona's unfaithfulness before Othello believes it. Iago also reminds Othello that Desdemona did once deceive her father. By the time Iago and Othello part, Othello believes he is indebted to Iago for being so honest with him.
Briefly, Desdemona appears with Othello. She wipes his brow with her handkerchief when he complains of a headache. The handkerchief drops when the couple leaves for dinner. Emilia picks the handkerchief up and mentions that her husband has asked her to steal it. After Emilia leaves, Iago tells the audience that he will plant the handkerchief in Cassio's house.
Othello talks with Iago, telling him that he has lost all tranquility. He says: "Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!" Othello tells Iago that if he has done this just to slander Desdemona, Iago had better beware.
Iago pretends to be offended. "O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world, / To be direct and honest is not safe." In other words, he is attempting to make Othello feel that he has hurt Iago by insinuating Iago might be lying. Othello is tortured by the uncertainty of his own thoughts, not knowing if he should trust his wife or trust Iago's insinuations.
Iago tells Othello that he overheard Cassio talking in his sleep. Iago says Cassio called out, "Let us be wary, let us hide our love." Iago continues to embellish his story, stating that Cassio then began kissing Iago, thinking he was a woman. Iago reports that Cassio said: "Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!"
This is the undoing of Othello. He cannot stand the thought of Desdemona and Cassio kissing. He wants Cassio to be dead. When Iago says that he will see to this, Othello makes Iago his new lieutenant.
Act 3, Scene 4
Although Desdemona does not know what is going on, she and Emilia discuss the jealousy that can sometimes be aroused. Desdemona tells Emilia that she cannot imagine Othello ever being jealous. This is Shakespeare's use of irony, as the audience knows full well that Othello is in a jealous rage. Othello enters and says he is not feeling well. He asks for the handkerchief that he once gave to Desdemona. Desdemona says she has misplaced it. Othello tells her the handkerchief is imbued with magical powers. The loss of it could mean bad luck. Tempers flair, as Desdemona and Othello clash. Othello storms out of the room.
Shortly after, Cassio is with Bianca, a woman he has slept with but does not love. She asks where Cassio has been. Cassio shows Bianca Desdemona's handkerchief. Bianca becomes jealous at the sight of it, thinking Cassio has slept with another woman. Cassio says he merely found it and asks Bianca to replicate it.
Act 4, Scene 1
Iago continues to provoke Othello, who falls into an epileptic fit. Iago revels in his handiwork. When Othello revives, Iago suggests that Othello hide and watch while Iago engages Cassio in a discussion about Desdemona. What Othello does not know is that Iago is actually discussing Bianca with Cassio. Othello cannot hear what the two men are saying and believes the object of Cassio's laughter is Desdemona. When Bianca appears and returns the handkerchief to Cassio, Othello is shocked by the sight of it.
When Cassio leaves, Othello asks: "How shall I murder him, Iago?" Iago places emphasis on the handkerchief, continuing his torture of Othello. Now Othello wants to kill Desdemona. He talks about chopping her into pieces. Iago tells Othello to strangle her.
Lodovico, Desdemona's uncle, arrives from Venice with letters for Othello, commanding him to return to Venice and to leave Cassio as his deputy in Cyprus. When Othello is with Desdemona, she expresses her hopes that Othello and Cassio can be reconciled. This infuriates Othello, and he strikes her and calls her "devil." Lodovico witnesses this and wonders what is wrong with Othello. When Lodovico confronts Othello, Othello calls Desdemona a whore. Later Iago talks to Lodovico and implies there is something wrong with Othello. Iago adds: "It is not honesty in me to speak / What I have seen and known." In other words, Iago makes Othello look weak and possibly mad. But of course, Iago claims no part in Othello's misery and psychological collapse.
Act 4, Scene 2
Othello questions Emilia about Desdemona's faithfulness. Emilia stands up for Desdemona. If Desdemona is not chaste, Emilia says: "There's no man happy; the purest of their wives / Is foul as slander."
Roderigo enters and accuses Iago of doing nothing to help him. Iago placates Roderigo by saying Othello will soon be leaving Cyprus without his wife and that, if Roderigo kills Cassio, no one will stand between him and Desdemona.
Act 4, Scene 3
This is another short scene, with Emilia helping Desdemona prepare for bed. Desdemona asks Emilia if there are women who "abuse" their husbands. Emilia says there are. Desdemona asks Emilia if she could do so to her husband. Emilia responds by asking if Desdemona could. Desdemona answers: "No, by this heavenly light!" Shakespeare shows, through this dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia, that no matter what Othello has done to Desdemona, she remains faithful to him.
Act 5, Scene 1
Roderigo tries to murder Cassio, but is himself wounded. Iago then wounds Cassio from behind and flees. Returning a short while later, Iago kills Roderigo to prevent his plan from being exposed.
Act 5, Scene 2
Othello finds Desdemona asleep. He awakens her with a kiss and tells her to prepare to die. Desdemona pleads for mercy. Othello mentions the handkerchief. Desdemona denies everything. She tells Othello to ask Cassio about it. Othello believes that Cassio is dead, so he tells her it is too late. Othello smothers her.
Hearing Emilia's calls at the door, Othello lets her in. Emilia tells Othello that it is Roderigo who is dead, not Cassio. Emilia hears Desdemona cry out: "O, falsely, falsely murdered!" Emilia asks Desdemona who has done this to her. Desdemona says it was only herself. Then she dies. Othello denies murdering her when Emilia asks. But then Othello confesses and tells Emilia that he learned of Desdemona's unfaithfulness through Iago. Emilia cries out for help. When Iago, Cassio, Montano, and others appear in response, she confronts her husband and exposes his treachery. Othello lunges at Iago, who has fatally wounded Emilia, and Iago flees. He is soon captured, however, and Othello stabs him. Cassio explains how he found the handkerchief. Papers discovered on Roderigo further reveal the extent of Iago's villainy. Lodovico tells Othello that his power as governor of Cyprus is over. Cassio has been assigned in his place.
Othello stabs himself and dies kissing Desdemona. Iago is remanded into Cassio's custody.
Bianca is a courtesan, or prostitute, in Cyprus. She flirts with Cassio, who falls for her affections, at least physically. Bianca finds the handkerchief that Othello gave to Desdemona in Cassio's bed and believes that Cassio has been cheating on her. Iago has planted the handkerchief, as his false proof that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. Bianca exhibits jealousy though Cassio dismisses her as not a serious part of his life. Bianca represents the Other, living outside the accepted society. She satisfies Cassio's physicals needs, but he appears to have no further attachment to her. It is Bianca, however, whom Cassio is talking about with Iago, when Othello believes Cassio is talking about Desdemona.
- Othello was adapted as a silent film in 1922. It starred Emil Jannings, Lya de Putti, and Werner Krauss. It is distributed by Video Yesteryear and Discount Video Tapes.
- In 1952, Othello was produced by United Artists and directed by Orson Welles. The cast featured Welles as Othello, Michael Mac Liammoir as Iago, and Suzanne Cloutier as Desdemona. It is available on DVD from MCVI.
- BHE Films of the United Kingdom produced a film version of Othello in 1965. This version starred Laurence Olivier as Othello, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, and Frank Finlay as Iago. This version is available on DVD (at http://www.amazon.com) from the studio Ruscico.
- In 1982, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in London produced a television adaptation of Othello. In this version, Anthony Hopkins starred as Othello, Bob Hoskins played Iago, and Penelope Wilton was Desdemona.
- A more recent version, filmed in 1995, starred Laurence Fishburne as Othello, with the great Shakespearian actor Kenneth Branagh playing Iago, and Irene Jacob acting in Desdemona's role. It is available on DVD from Turner Home Entertainment.
- In 1997, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C., decided to put a different twist on this play, choosing Patrick Stewart (a white actor) to play Othello and Patrice Johnson (a black actress) to play Desdemona, with Ron Canada (a black actor) playing Iago. Most of the actors in this play were black except for a few servants, guards, and the prostitute Bianca.
- Besides stage and movie productions, Othello has also been adapted into an opera by Giuseppe Verdi (first produced in 1887) and called Otello. A 1982 production featured Kiri Te Kanawa, Vladimir Atlantov, and Piero Cappuccilli. This production is available through HBO Home Video. Another version of the same opera features Placido Domingo, Katia Ricciarelli, and Justino Diaz. It was originally performed in 1976 and can be purchased from Music and Arts Programs online (at http://musicandarts.com).
Brabantio is a Venetian senator and Desdemona's father. He charges Othello with bewitching his daughter. He wants Othello to go to jail, as if Othello has committed a crime. He reluctantly backs down in front of the duke, when the duke makes it clear that he thinks highly of Othello and needs Othello to defend Cyprus. Brabantio dies after Desdemona leaves for Cyprus with Othello. Brabantio is a somewhat blustering and self-important Venetian senator. At first he believes Othello is a friend, but when Othello marries Desdemona, Brabantio feels betrayed. He warns Othello that Desdemona has betrayed her father and could just as well betray her husband, foreshadowing further development in the play.
Cassio is Othello's lieutenant, who is promoted to that rank over Iago. Cassio is a young and inexperienced soldier, whose high position is much resented by Iago. This resentment sets off Iago's plan of deception and revenge. Truly devoted to Othello, Cassio is extremely ashamed after being implicated in a drunken brawl during Othello's wedding celebration on Cyprus. This causes Othello to dismiss him, stripping him of his newly won promotion. Iago tells Cassio to go to Desdemona to plead his case to Othello. Iago uses Cassio to set up a fictitious love affair between Cassio and Desdemona, which only really occurs in Iago's mind. However, Iago is able to trick Othello, making him believe that Cassio is going to bed with Desdemona. In comparison to Iago, who is very sinister and rather crude, Cassio is a gentleman who truly loves Othello and is devoted to Othello's wife. Cassio is also very honest. Cassio is caught in Iago's deceptive web and is almost killed by Roderigo and Iago. In the end, Cassio is the victor, winning the governor's position in Cyprus when Othello's murder of Desdemona is discovered.
The clown is one of Othello's servants. Although the clown appears only in two short scenes, his appearances reflect and distort the action and words of the main plots: his puns on the word "lie" in act 3, scene 4, for example, anticipate Othello's confusion of two meanings of that word in the next act
Desdemona is the daughter of Brabantio. She elopes with Othello and accompanies him to Cyprus. After Cassio is discredited, she pleads for his reinstatement, an act that her husband interprets as proof of Iago's insinuations that she is unfaithful and is having an illicit affair with Cassio. Desdemona has traditionally been seen as the fair and gentle maiden full of innocence, commitment, and love. She stands in contrast with Iago's villainy.
Desdemona's role is rather straightforward and uncomplicated. She does stand up to her father, but she is more passive with her husband. She cannot imagine ever having an illicit affair, though her maid Emilia tells Desdemona that many women do. Desdemona is fascinated with Othello, maybe to the point of blindness, as she does not understand his jealousy nor does she fight very hard for her own life. Rather, she almost completely gives in to Othello's decree that she must die. She merely begs for one more day.
Duke of Venice
The duke represents the head of the Venetian Council, the official authority in Venice. He has great respect for Othello as a public and military servant. His primary role within the play is to reconcile Othello and Brabantio. In doing this, the audience gains a glimpse of Othello, the noble and valiant general. The duke's opinion of Othello counters Brabantio's description of Othello as well as Iago's. It is through the confrontation with the duke in front of his court that Othello delivers his finest speech in the play.
Emilia is Iago's wife and Desdemona's attendant. She gives Iago Desdemona's handkerchief, which he had asked her to steal. After Othello murders his wife, Emilia reveals Desdemona's fidelity and is mortally wounded by Iago for exposing the truth. A cynical, worldly woman, she is deeply attached to her mistress and distrustful of her husband. It is through Emilia that Desdemona receives another view of the world. Emilia's and Iago's marriage is used as a contrast to Desdemona's and Othello's. Iago berates Emilia in the play, never showing any positive emotions; whereas Desdemona and Othello reflect a sincere and deeply felt love, at least until Iago destroys that.
Graziano is Brabantio's kinsman who accompanies Lodovico (Desdemona's uncle)to Cyprus to deliver a letter to Othello. Amidst the chaos of the final scene, Graziano mentions that Desdemona's father has died.
Iago is a soldier under Othello's rule. When Othello promotes Cassio to lieutenant, overlooking Iago, Iago feels slighted and plots revenge against both men. Iago is a master manipulator, feeding ideas to people who eagerly follow them as if they were their own. He enlists Cassio in a drunken melee, even though Cassio knows that he should not be drinking on duty. Iago strings Roderigo along, having the man pay him for services never rendered. These minor characters are the playthings of Iago. Iago's biggest feat, however, is when he brings the great warrior, Othello, down.
Iago is one of Shakespeare's most villainous creations. He is the closest character to a devil in Shakespeare's repertoire. Much of this is due to Iago's intelligence, his craftiness, and his confidence. He is quick-witted, unafraid of putting his ideas into motion, and unconcerned with the consequences. He has no morals. Iago lets it be known that he is doing everything he does for no one's benefit but his own. He belittles his wife and still manages to get her to steal for him. He lies so much throughout the play, it is a wonder he remembers what story he has told to which character.
Critics often debate Iago's motives. What drives him to act as he does? Is it merely to attain the rank of lieutenant? Is he jealous of Othello? Does he lust for Desdemona? Or is he just hungry for power. Does he admire his own ability to manipulate, and then enjoy watching the consequences? Some people believe Iago is simply, but purely, evil, doing immoral things merely to be bad. There was a time when actors wanted to play Othello more than they did Iago. But over time, the character of Iago has been looked at in more depth, and actors crave both roles, some taking turns, switching from Othello to Iago. Some critics have even said that Iago is more complex than Othello.
Lodovico is Desdemona's uncle. He acts as a messenger from Venice to Cyprus. He arrives in Cyprus in act 4 with letters announcing that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor. He is shocked when he sees Othello slap Desdemona and questions Iago about Othello's mental state.
Montano is the governor of Cyprus before Othello arrives. He appears in the beginning of act 3 and is fearful for Othello's life as a storm rages off the shores of Cyprus. He is also fearful that Othello's boats might have sunk, thus leaving the island vulnerable to the Turks' attack.
Othello is the protagonist of the play. He is referred to as the Moor, the commander of Venice's armed forces. His victories at war give him hero status, making him a favorite of many of the Venetians, including Brabantio and Desdemona. He secretly weds Desdemona, provoking Brabantio's anger. He also inflames Iago's anger by promoting Cassio to the rank of lieutenant, a position that Iago covets.
Both Iago and Roderigo despise Othello, though Othello is not aware of this. Othello believes that Iago is an honest man and easily becomes entrapped in Iago's treacherous schemes. Othello is awarded the governorship of Cyprus when he (and a big storm) squelch the Turkish navy's attempts to land in Cyprus and take over. It is while in Cyprus that Iago infects Othello with suspicions that Desdemona is unfaithful. Jealousy overtakes Othello's logic. He almost goes mad with the thought of Desdemona going to bed with Cassio. The only way out of his jealous fits, Othello believes, is murder. He orders Cassio's murder and then takes Desdemona's life. Upon hearing that Desdemona was actually innocent, Othello kills himself.
Critics have argued for many years about whether Othello is truly a heroic figure with a tragic flaw or simply an egotistical, self-serving man. Is Othello blinded by his emotional fury or by his myopic vision of the people around him because he is so engrossed in images of himself. How did he fall so far, so quickly? This play is filled with contrasts, especially between the various characters. Othello, however, presents a drastic contrast in and of himself. He is a hero on the battlefield—that is apparent. He has also proven himself a great leader. His love for Desdemona has been defined as one of the best ever dramatized. And yet he is so easily manipulated by Iago. His love gave him strength but it also made him vulnerable.
Roderigo is the rejected suitor of Desdemona. He becomes Iago's pawn, wounds and is wounded by Cassio in an unsuccessful attempt to murder the lieutenant, and then is finally killed by Iago to stop Roderigo from revealing Iago's deceptions. Roderigo is paying Iago to help him win Desdemona. He appears unable to think for himself and is easily controlled by Iago. Roderigo is either frustrated or inspired by Iago, and a few times he is so desperate he wants to kill himself. In the end he agrees to help Iago kill Cassio after Iago points out that Cassio is another potential rival for Desdemona.
Jealousy and Mistrust
Perhaps the predominant impression created by Shakespeare's play Othello is that of the terrible destructiveness of jealousy. Although the main focus of the play is on the protagonist, Othello, many characters are infected with this destructive emotion, making jealousy the major theme that runs through this drama. Through watching this play, audiences also come to realize the relationship between jealousy and a lack of trust.
Jealousy destroys Othello, a once proud and honored military and political leader. Suspicions that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair racks Othello's brain to the point of epileptic fits, to a complete distortion of reality, and, ultimately, to murder and suicide. Shakespeare demonstrates how powerless a person can become when a series of distorted thoughts is allowed to infect the mind. Although tremendously misguided into his jealous fit through the efforts of the villainous Iago, Othello is unable to trust in his love for Desdemona and to defy the insinuations of Iago. There is a weakness in Othello, Shakespeare contends, that allows the jealousy to first show its ugly head and then to take over Othello's mind. It is that weakness that makes Othello so easy for Iago to manipulate. Othello does not trust Desdemona, maybe does not trust any woman who makes him feel so vulnerable because of his love. Or maybe Othello does not trust himself. Foolishly, Othello trusts Iago more than any one, despite the fact that Iago is the least trustworthy character in this play.
Jealousy makes a person blind to the truth, this play announces. Othello questions Emilia and Desdemona but refuses to listen to their words—he refuses to trust them. He does not think to confront Cassio, who could tell Othello how he came upon Desdemona's handkerchief, the only so-called proof that Iago presents to confirm Desdemona and Cassio are having an illicit affair. It is not until Desdemona tells Othello to ask Cassio for his side of the story that the thought enters Othello's mind. By then it is too late because Othello believes that Cassio has been killed. All of this demonstrates that Othello has forgotten how to think rationally. His emotions have created a mental storm that tosses him about from one wild thought to another, none of which are logical. The green-eyed monster, as Shakespeare has portrayed jealousy, has invaded Othello's mind just as assuredly as an alien might invade a human body in some modern science fiction tale. Similarly, jealousy has turned Othello into a murderous beast. Othello berates Desdemona, slaps her in front of dignitaries visiting from Venice, and then after a last kiss, Othello watches Desdemona take her final breath.
It is jealousy and nothing else that topples Othello from the high pedestal upon which he once stood and strips him of his ultimate pleasure in life, his dignity, his reputation, and, finally, his life.
The antagonist, Iago, is also infected with jealousy. However, Iago seems to use the green-eyed monster to his benefit. Jealousy spurs Iago to think more clearly, and to scheme more clever—though devilish—plots. Jealousy inspires Iago's ambition. Iago is jealous of Cassio, not so much for Cassio himself but for Cassio's position. Iago wants to be the right-hand man to Othello, though he has little respect or fondness for the general. Shakespeare demonstrates, however, that jealousy is not to be trusted. By the end of the play, Iago begins to realize this. He has forgotten that jealousy can make a person blind. In Iago's case, he forgets that people who are aware of his scheme can talk and can expose him. Iago's jealousy also leads him to murder. He tries to kill Cassio, first, but fails. Then he kills Roderigo to silence him. Finally, Iago kills Emilia, his wife, for confessing that she was the one who gave Desdemona's handkerchief to him, implicating Iago in the plot to smear both Desdemona's and Cassio's reputations. Iago is also blinded by jealousy in that he forgets to calculate the consequences of his actions, including his own imprisonment.
In many ways Iago trusts no one. He is smart enough to manipulate everyone, turning their minds to thoughts he wants them to have. The only person he comes close to trusting is Roderigo, one of the biggest fools in this play. Iago tells Roderigo parts of his scheme. This makes Iago vulnerable to Roderigo. The only person that Iago appears to fully trust is himself, which turns out to be his downfall.
Roderigo is also driven by jealousy. He follows along with Iago's plan because he wants to satisfy his jealousy through revenge. He wants Desdemona and will have her one way or the other as if she were a fruit he could pick from a tree. He will put her within his grasp by any means. But Roderigo's only means available is money, which he gives to Iago, trusting Iago is smart enough to buy the tasty Desdemona. Roderigo has no trust in himself and would rather kill himself than not have Desdemona. Roderigo both trusts and mistrusts Iago. But he has no choice but to do whatever Iago tells him; at least until the end of the play.
Iago's manipulation of Othello, if it were not so evil, could be seen as a magnificent accomplishment. Iago is so clever, quick, and thorough in his scheme one cannot help but admit his intelligence. He is the only one who recognizes Othello's weakness and single-handedly brings the great Othello down.
Othello is not the only one who comes under Iago's manipulative spell. Emilia, Iago's wife, obeys him because he taunts her with promised favors. Until the end, Emilia never suspects the harm her husband is brewing. Iago also manipulates Brabantio, twisting Desdemona's father's emotions until Brabantio is ready to kill Othello, or at least send Othello to jail. In addition, Iago manipulates Roderigo, who plays a very needy simpleton that almost anyone could persuade.
Through Iago's manipulation, Shakespeare points out how vulnerable people can be. By stirring their emotions, a wickedly smart person can manipulate other people to do almost anything he or she wants them to do. The play might be said to serve as a warning to guard one's heart and head against the manipulations of a person like Iago, a man with a brilliant mind gone bad.
The Other and Racism
The term referred to as the Other is often used in sociological studies to indicate people in a particular society who do not belong to the predominant majority. An example of the Other in the United States would be women, as well as all people of color, since Caucasian men with European roots make up the dominant ruling group.
In Shakespeare's drama Othello, the protagonist, is considered the Other. Othello is neither a Venetian nor a member of the dominant group living in Cyprus. In both cultures, Othello is an outsider. Othello is a Moor, originally from North Africa. He is possibly (though Shakespeare does not make this completely clear) a black man, a Muslim, or maybe an Arab. What is known is that Othello comes from somewhere other than where he is currently living and is, therefore, a foreigner, a member of a very small minority.
Attitudes of local citizens toward people who might be classified as the Other often fall into a range of emotions. Some people, such as Iago in Shakespeare's play, do not like outsiders. This could be due to fear of the unknown traits that a stranger might possess. The dominant class of a society might also be jealous of an outsider because that person might exhibit strengths that come across as unusual and unattainable by the local majority group. The dominant class might also feel threatened by people who belong in a minority group because they do not understand them. On the other end of emotions, people in the dominant class might be in awe of someone whom they consider the Other. They may venerate someone who is not like them, believing this so-called Other to be exotic and maybe even godlike. This has happened in Native American and Polynesian cultures when they first encountered white people arriving in ships, brandishing guns, bringing modes of transportation and weapons that the local culture had never before imagined.
In Othello, the duke looks upon Othello as the great warrior, the valiant man who will protect Venice and Cyprus. The duke is impressed with Othello's battle victories. It is possible that because the duke is so taken by Othello (and his qualities of Otherness), that he appoints Othello to govern Cyprus. The duke might have seen Othello as a symbol of strength and been blind to Othello's weaknesses because the duke was not looking at Othello as a man or a contemporary but rather as an exotic entity who lived in a realm somewhat elevated above the common Venetian. Because Othello was later so overcome by jealousy, he must have had a serious character flaw—one that the duke might have noticed in someone of his own kind but either overlooked or failed to see in Othello because the duke only noticed Othello's differences.
Desdemona also seems to be taken by Othello; she might not have been so influenced by another man of her own culture. She is impressed with Othello's stories about his victories, which help her to create an image of the man, rather than seeing the man himself. Had she probed deeper into Othello's personality, she might have gotten to know him better and been forewarned of his insecurities. Because she was so enthralled by Othello's Otherness, Desdemona could not imagine, for example, that Othello could ever be so weak as to become jealous. She might have saved her marriage, or at least her life, if she had seen Othello more realistically.
Iago and Roderigo, however, are not so blinded. Their impressions take another route. They curse Othello and call him names. Their opinions of the Other lead them to embrace racism, a negative reaction to people who do not belong to the dominant culture. Iago, in particular, demeans Othello, referring to him as an animal, a "black ram." He also calls Othello a devil. Brabantio also stoops to racist reactions. There was a time when Brabantio was in awe of Othello, like the duke was. But this was before Brabantio discovers that his daughter, Desdemona, is involved with Othello. Brabantio goes from being impressed with Othello to believing that Othello has drugged and bewitched Desdemona. Brabantio cannot think of another reason why Desdemona would fall for someone who belongs outside the class of people to which they belong. Once Othello touches Desdemona, Brabantio looks upon Othello as a wild, bewitching Other and no longer as a great warrior.
Othello is not the only one who is cast as the Other. Women are also placed in this realm. Iago makes insulting comments to Desdemona and Emilia, describing, first his wife and then women in general, as being noisy and worthless except in bed. There is no way that Iago can look upon women as equals. Even Othello, in the throes of his jealous rage, curses women as if they did not belong to the same human race as he does. And often gentle Cassio relegates Bianca to a position not only beneath him but below other women, using her to satisfy his needs then casting her aside when he tires of her, treating her as a servant more than as a lover. One could read into Bianca's role the summation of Shakespeare's theme of the Other. Bianca will never be accepted into the society because she does not play by the accepted society's rules. She will remain forever on the fringes, the outsider. She is used to benefit that society and is quickly forgotten or ignored at the first sign of weakness or exposure, and then told that she is no longer needed because she does not fit in.
Honesty is mentioned several times in this play. One character states that another character is honest, thus establishing a high standard for that character and creating trust in the relationships that are developed. Othello believes that Iago is an honest man, for instance, and therefore listens to everything that Iago tells him without making much effort to evaluate what he hears. Iago states that Cassio is honest, but he does so for an entirely different reason. By mentioning honesty, Iago is really trying to plant a doubt in Othello's mind, hinting that maybe this evaluation of Cassio might not be quite true. Desdemona's uncle, Lodovico, claims that Desdemona is an honest woman, thus throwing suspicion on Othello's state of mind.
Despite the many allusions to honesty, deception runs rampant in Othello. It is the contrast between the higher principle of honesty and the lower practice of deception that furthers the drama in this play. The clash between the two concepts drives the plot and adds tension.
It is interesting to note that if the audience was not aware of the deception going on in the play, if the audience were kept in the dark as are Desdemona and Othello (and most of the other characters), the play would not be quite as interesting or exciting. Shakespeare allows the audience to hear Iago's thoughts, so they can see how deceptive Iago is. When Iago tells Othello that he loves him, for example, the audience knows, without a doubt, that Iago is lying. This makes Iago appear more treacherous and makes the audience become involved in the play to the point of wanting to warn Othello to beware. In contrast, by the time most of the characters become aware of all the deception in this play, it is too late. They have all become pawns and have fallen victim to the most deceptive man, Iago. Although Iago is a master of deception, he does not get away with it in the end. Shakespeare's play demonstrates that, although deception might further a person's plan to a certain point, lying to gain what a person wants is evil and carries with it serious punishment.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the history of the relationship between the Turkish Empire and the Republic of Venice. Create a timeline of their clashes and prepare a presentation for your class of the wars, the territory fought over, and the results. Also provide a background, from both points of view (Turkish and Venetian), of the two cultures and the motivations behind those conflicts.
- Venice was once the richest city in Europe. How did Venice gather its wealth? How did the city spend it? Who were the wealthiest families? And where did this wealth come from? Look into the economy of Venice in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. Write out a report, supported by statistics, about Venice at the height of its prosperity.
- Write a poem to Desdemona from Othello. The setting is after Desdemona's death and after Othello has discovered Iago's scheme. Pretend that Othello is in jail, awaiting his own death sentence. What would Othello want to tell Desdemona before he dies?
- Critics have argued that, although Iago had some reasons for his dastardly deeds, there is nothing to explain why he was so evil. Pretend you are Iago's defense lawyer. Come up with reasons why he should not be hanged, even if you can find no proof from the lines in the play and have to manufacture your reasons. Pretend your class is the jury and present your case.
Shakespeare often uses imagery in Othello to explain a character's emotion without describing that emotion in detail. In this play, the author uses animal imagery, in particular, as well as other elements occurring in the natural world. For example, in act 1, Iago describes Othello as a black ram, providing the audience not only with a color but the notion of Othello being the odd man out, such as the black sheep in the midst of a white woolly flock. The word ram also carries sexual overtones; and this is very apparent in the complete statement of Iago's when he says: "an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe." Here Iago is insinuating that Othello is having sex with Desdemona. In other words, if Othello is the black ram, then Desdemona must be the white ewe (a female sheep). The use of animal imagery in this instance also brings out the banality of the sex act, as if the two (Othello and Desdemona) were merely having sex without any feelings of love attached to it. They, and especially Othello, are like animals, given over to the base instincts of the body.
Also in act 1, Iago refers to a "knee-crooking knave," who "Wears out his time, much like his master's ass." Everyone knows (at least in Shakespeare's time they did) that an ass (a donkey) is a work animal without much esteem or intelligence. Iago uses this image to explain that he does not want to be at the beck and call of Othello, merely because Othello is his superior. If Iago were to give in to all of Othello's orders, then Iago would be no better than an "ass," a dumb animal that does what it is told with little or no reward. Without having to put this all into words, Shakespeare allows the imagery to speak for him.
Later in the same act, Iago compares Othello to a horse. Iago is trying to impress on Brabantio that someone unworthy of his daughter is trying to impregnate her. Iago demeans Othello through several lines of imagery, referring not only to Othello as a "Barbary horse," but taking the imagery even further: "you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll / have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans." Shakespeare's audiences would have recognized all these images. A Barbary horse is a horse that comes from the Barbary Coast, which is the north coast of Africa, thus the audience would have known this was an allusion to Othello. A courser is a race horse; and gennets are Spanish horses, with the word "germans" standing for "family." In other words, if Brabantio allows Othello to get Desdemona pregnant, Brabantio will end up with a family of offspring that are less than human. This image would certainly make a deep impression on Brabantio. The image of Brabantio's daughter giving birth to horses would turn any father's stomach.
It is through images such as these that Shakespeare excites his audiences. To have Iago merely state that Othello is a bad man or an unfit husband is too vague a statement. These words are too abstract. Shakespeare does not want his audience to be free to create their own impressions. Instead he gives them very specific pictures, imbued with emotions, with which to fill their minds.
Lack of Subplot
Othello is unique among Shakespeare's plays because it lacks a subplot. A subplot is a series of actions that occur in a play (or novel) that are interlinked with the main plot but are not as important. For example, in the movie Superman, the relationship that develops between Superman and Lois Lane would be considered a subplot. Many of Shakespeare's plays have subplots. But Shakespeare did not include one in Othello. This makes the scheming of Iago and the emotional turmoil of Othello incredibly focused. The audience has little more to think about except how evil is Iago and how vulnerable is Othello. Subplots are often used to add complexity to a drama. Shakespeare must have realized that the emotional turmoil in Othello added as much complexity as this drama could stand.
Shakespeare uses asides in his plays to allow the audience a glimpse into the mind or thoughts of his characters. By using an aside, it is as if a character is talking to him- or herself out loud. Sometimes actors reciting asides look at the audience, as if the actor is aware that the audience is watching and wants to share some information with them. Asides are usually said when only one character is on the stage, or when a character has moved to the side of the stage away from the other characters, thus keeping whatever is said a secret. Less often, asides are shared between two characters, with the audience, of course, listening in.
In Othello, Iago uses asides a lot, almost as if he cannot keep his own mischief secretly locked up inside of him. He must tell someone and let someone know how clever he is. For example, in act 1, scene 3, right after Roderigo leaves, Iago calls Roderigo a fool in an aside. Iago says: "Thus do I ever make my fool my purse." It is during this aside that Iago confesses his hatred for Othello.
In some ways, asides can be used as a narrator is used in a novel. Asides can fill in information that the author wants the audience to know, details that are not included in dialog. Asides are also very important in drawing the audience into the drama. If the audience shares a secret, they feel a part of the scheme that is being hatched on stage.
The handkerchief used in Othello is a symbol, standing for different things at various times in this play. For Othello, the handkerchief is a symbol of his love. When he was given it, he was told it was charged with magic. In some ways, the handkerchief is something like a wedding ring, given to Othello's bride as a sign of his commitment. When Desdemona misplaces the handkerchief, it becomes a prop that Iago will use to cement his insinuations that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair. When Cassio discovers it, the handkerchief becomes a special trinket that he wants duplicated. He uses the handkerchief to belittle Bianca. However, when Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief, the small piece of cloth becomes the proof that Desdemona has been unfaithful. The handkerchief then becomes the symbol of the mortal seal of Desdemona's fate. The handkerchief also seals Iago's fate when Emilia sees it and exposes her husband's scheme.
The power of this symbol is that it raises the audience's attention as well as the tension in the play. The audience does not want Emilia to give the handkerchief to Iago. They do not want Cassio to find it. They do not want Othello to see it in Cassio's hands. When the audience watches Othello react to the presence of the handkerchief after it has been lost, they know that Othello will not stop until he has done harm to Desdemona. The symbol, in this case, almost takes on a role of another character. It grabs the audience's imagination and keeps their eyes glued to the stage. When will the handkerchief next appear, the audience wonders.
Symbols, such as the blue feather in the cartoon story of Dumbo, which gives the baby circus elephant the extra confidence it needs to fly, is a tool that authors use to emphasize the emotional content of the play (movie, novel, etc.). A symbol stands for something else. In the case of the handkerchief, it stands for several things, things that cannot be seen. Love, fidelity, and commitment are abstractions. They are concepts that can only be expressed in words. Shakespeare uses the handkerchief because it is visible, something tangible. The audience can watch as the handkerchief changes hands, changes meaning, and finally changes the directions of the characters' lives.
Every good writer knows that conflict is what makes the story interesting. Readers become bored with a story if there is no conflict. It is through conflict that characters either are bolstered in their confidence, or they completely fall apart. Shakespeare is a master at creating conflict in his plays.
Conflict requires a character to struggle with something. If it is an external conflict, than the protagonist might struggle with another character or some other external element such as nature. If the conflict is internal, than the protagonist is challenged by something inside of him- or herself. In this play, although there are brief bouts of external conflict—the unseen battle between Turkish and Venetian ships; the sword fights or brawls in the streets among Othello's men—most of the conflict is internal, or psychological. The major conflict is the battle that goes on inside Othello's head. Othello must come to terms with his jealousy, which pulls him away from another strong emotion, his love for Desdemona. The plot and the action of the play revolve around how Iago is going to create that conflict and then how Othello is going to deal with it.
When Othello confronts Desdemona, the conflict is said to be interpersonal. Othello must struggle with Desdemona as he tries to understand what has happened and then decide whom he is going to believe, Desdemona or Iago. Othello's brief conflict with Brabantio in the beginning of the play is also interpersonal. That conflict is used to define Othello's character for the good, demonstrating how eloquent Othello is and how well he is accepted and honored in the Venetian council. Othello faces this conflict quite eloquently. His conflict with Desdemona, however, points out Othello's weaknesses. At the end of the play, Othello has a different kind of conflict, this time a conflict with his own actions. He has murdered the woman he loves and learns that he did so through a haze of misinformation and hate. It is too late to change his actions. Just as he succumbs in the conflict with his jealousy, Othello also loses this final conflict.
Prose versus Poetry
Shakespeare's plays are written both in prose and in poetry. He uses both forms to express different feelings in his plays. For example, when Othello stands before the Venetian council to explain his love for Desdemona and rebut Brabantio's claims that he has stolen Desdemona, Shakespeare writes Othello's monologue in a poetic form. That form is blank verse—unrhymed lines of ten syllables set in the pattern of iambic pentameter, a series of unstressed and stressed syllables. However, as Othello's jealousy takes over his mind, he does not always speak through poetic language and patterns. He begins talking in prose. It is as if Shakespeare is signaling through the use of prose, in these instances, that Othello is losing his composure, his elegance, as well as his rational state of mind. For example, in act 4, scene 1, Othello is desperately trying to grasp the facts. He is talking with Iago, who is implying that Desdemona has been unfaithful. The news hits Othello hard, and just before he falls into an epileptic fit, Othello speaks lines that have no poetry. He almost babbles.
Shakespeare also uses prose when Cassio speaks to Bianca, probably pointing out the ignoble nature of their relationship. Roderigo often talks in prose. This might be used to suggest his lack of intelligence. Whereas Desdemona almost always speaks lines written like poems.
Historians have trouble pinpointing exactly who the Moors were. What is suspected is that the Moors were a people, possibly of Berber and Arab descent, living in northern Africa. What is known is that in the eight century, people called Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, which today contains both Spain and Portugal. The Moors brought the Islamic religion to the Iberian Peninsula, which until then had been a Christianized area. The Moors ruled most, and later only parts, of the peninsula for seven centuries. They were eventually driven out of their last stronghold in southern Spain in the year 1492, a date that corresponds to Columbus's sailing to the New World.
The origin of the word Moor has been traced to Greek as well as Latin words that translate as "black" or "very dark." Some sources refer to Moors as being Berbers, who, for the most part, were light skinned and blue-eyed. Other sources state that the term Moor was used to designate people of the Muslim faith. The names Morocco and Mauritania are said to be derivatives of the word Moor.
Venice sits in the middle of the Venetian Lagoon, surrounded by water and marshes in northeast Italy at the head of the Adriatic Sea. This was an ancient, strategic naval position; by the twelfth century, Venice had a strong navy and enjoyed its status as a major trade center between Europe, the Byzantine Empire and Muslim countries to the east. By the thirteenth century, Venice was the richest city in Europe. The most prosperous Venetian families ruled the Great Council, which was the political body that governed the city, with a duke as its head. Although the republics that flanked Venice were vehemently Christian, often persecuting those who did not practice this religion, Venice was known for its religious tolerance.
By the fourteenth century, Venice dominated the trade of the Adriatic Sea and had many colonies in the Middle East. During the fifteenth century, the Venetians went to battle with the Ottoman Turks several times, as well as with several republics that today make up modern-day Italy, such as Milan and Florence. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, Venice lost a great battle to the Turks and had to concede much of its previously conquered territories. In 1489, Venice received the island of Cyprus from Caterina Cornaro, who was born in Venice and was the queen of Cyprus due to the untimely death of her husband and son. She was forced by the Republic of Venice to abdicate her throne; that was how Venice came to rule Cyprus.
Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and lies off the southern coast of Turkey. The history of the island is very bloody, with battles fought for centuries to determine who would rule this island country. The island had long been occupied by Greeks, but through the centuries was conquered by other countries, including the Venetian Republic and, in the sixteenth century, Turkey. Today Cyprus is divided into a Turkish portion and a Greek portion. In between these two parts is a sort of no-man's-land, administered by the United Nations to keep the peace.
Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, and Romans took their turns governing this island in the first thousands years b.c.e. In the first centuries c.e., Cyprus was controlled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, British, and German conquerors, until Venetian officials took over for almost one hundred years beginning in 1489. The Venetian rule ended when the Ottoman Empire, after several attempts, defeated Venice's armies in 1571. The Turks maintained control for several hundred years until they were forced to sign over the island to the British.
Cyprus won its independence in 1960. However, since that time until the present day, the Greek communities on the island have not gotten along with their neighbors, the Cyprus citizens of Turkish descent. That is why, today, the island is still divided.
Aspects of the Elizabethan Theatre
The development of theatres in England captured the imagination of the country's citizens and grew rapidly during Shakespeare's life. Companies of actors were often sponsored by noblemen and sometimes played out of their estates. Smaller troupes traveled throughout the countryside, sometimes performing on a wheeled platform that was pulled from one small township to another. Other groups of actors performed in inns, as the innkeepers were well aware of the money they could make from the audience's needs for drink and food. Other troupes acted out their dramas at local festivals.
There was often great dispute concerning the presence of actors and their audiences. Officials complained that the gathering of these people to perform or to watch plays was a good way to spread disease, as many actors were called vagabonds (or tramps) who went from town to town begging for money and were considered likely to carry communicable diseases. Many of the plays that were performed contained what the upper classes of people defined as lewd material, such as dramas that alluded to sexual intercourse. Plays written by Shakespeare also included this material; critics believe these scenes were written for the common folk, to keep them entertained. Drunken brawls were also a frequent occurrence among the audience members, and merchants often complained that their workers too often played hooky so they could watch the plays, thus costing the merchants money. Such complaints were the basis for having playhouses banned from being built inside the city limits of London. So acting troupes displayed their art along the boundaries of the town, across the River Thames, away from the reach of the Corporation of London (the municipal government of the city) but within easy reach of the audiences.
In 1572, strolling acting groups were banned completely. Queen Elizabeth I, however, eventually permitted four noblemen to establish and support their own theater companies. For the most part, the noblemen financed plays that were held on permanent stages that were built in inns. The first proper theater in the area of London was built in Shoreditch in 1576, called simply, The Theatre. Other theaters followed. The best known of these early theaters were: The Curtain, built in 1577; The Rose, built in 1587; the theater that Shakespeare made so popular, The Globe, built in 1599; and The Hope, built in 1613. Many of these theaters were built in the rougher parts of town. For example, The Rose Theatre was built next to a prison, with brothels and bear-baiting arenas all around. Some of these theaters were big enough to hold as many as three thousand people.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1400s: The Republic of Venice takes control of Cyprus, the third largest of the islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
1600s: The Ottoman Empire (also called the Empire of Turkey) governs the island of Cyprus.
Today: After years under British control, Cyprus demands independence. However, Cyprus is made up of Greek and Turkish residents, who continue to fight for control. Today, the island is divided into four main sections: in the south, the Republic of Cyprus; the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; the United Nations controlled Green Line Section dividing the north from the south; and the British Base Areas.
- 1400s: After 700 years of ruling the Iberian Peninsula, the Moors are forced to leave.
1600s: As Spanish ships claim lands farther to the east, they come upon Muslim people in the Philippines and refer to them as Moors.
Today: Some scientists classify people as Moors based on language. They claim that people who speak the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic and live mainly in the western Sahara Desert and the Islamic Republic of Mauritania are Moors. In the Spanish language, the term Moors corresponds to any one of the Muslim faith. Derivatives of the word Moor in Latin mean "black."
- 1400s: Venice maintains a naval prominence in the Mediterranean waters, capturing Corfu, the Dalmatian Coast, Zante, and finally Cyprus. Then Venice begins to acquire more land on the mainland of the Adriatic Sea.
1600s: Its political and maritime powers decline, but Venice retains its reputation as a haven for and promoter of the arts.
Today: Despite the corrosion of the ancient buildings by the polluted waters that stream through the city, Venice has become one of Italy's most popular tourist destinations.
Most of these early theaters did not have roofs, except for over small portions of the stage and a tiered group of expensive seats. People who could not afford a seat stood in an open-air amphitheater called a pit, which was found at the front of the stage. The Globe, which housed Shakespeare's company of actors, called The Lord Chamberlain's Men, or later, The King's Men, was built to these typical specifications. An example of a completely roofed theater, popular with the gentry and more expensive to attend, was the Blackfriars Theatre. The land on which the Blackfriars Theatre was built was once owned by a group of Catholic, Dominican monks (hence the name), thus the land was considered exempt from city governance. Shakespeare's plays were often played on this stage; Othello was one of the plays that was performed here.
Although no effort or money was typically put into scenery during Shakespeare's time, a lot of attention and investment did go into the costumes and became an acting group's most important possessions. Through costume and makeup, young boys were able to conceal their masculinity and play the roles of women, such as Desdemona.
Why is the character of Desdemona so passive about losing her life? Why is Emilia so compliant with her husband? Part of the reason for this might have had something to do with the role of women in Elizabethan England.
Elizabethan women were not allowed to go to school, for one thing, although they were allowed to study under a private tutor. Neither did Elizabethan women have the right to vote. For the most part, these sixteenth-century women stayed home, had children, and helped to raise them. The only professions open to women were domestic ones, such as cooks, housekeepers, and maids. A few women worked in the arts, but they were not allowed on stage.
The husband was seen as the head of the family, but this did not give him the right to abuse his wife. A husband could rebuke his wife, but hitting her was considered socially improper, with extensive abuse being illegal. But the general overall consensus of the time was that women were to obey their husbands at all times because men knew more than women. This, of course, caused a bit of a controversy with the strong Queen Elizabeth I at the helm. Still, members of the royal families were allowed more leeway in their behavior than ordinary women.
Othello was first produced in 1604. Throughout the next twenty years or so, the play was staged on an almost continual basis. By some historic accounts, it was in the 1630s, that one of the first roles played by a female on England's professional stage was that of Othello's Desdemona. The first real African-American person to play the title role of Othello was Ira Aldridge. Prior to this, white actors used "blackface," a type of makeup, when playing African-American roles. For almost forty years, from 1826 until 1865, Aldridge continued to act out this role all over Europe but not in the United States, the country of his birth. In 1865, while playing Othello and in the midst of the fourth act of the play, Aldridge died on stage. It would not be until 1943 that an African-American man, Paul Robeson, played Othello in the United States. Although the play was a Broadway success, it displeased segregationists. However, according to Michael Neill, in his essay "Othello and Race," one critic was so moved by the power of Robeson's performance that after seeing Robeson play the role of Othello, he stated "that 'no white man should ever dare play the part again.'"
Although Othello has been a major hit with audiences, mostly due to the dramatic plot, some critics have not responded well to the play. For example, George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), himself a dramatist, wrote in 1907 that he thought Othello was "pure melodrama." As recorded in A Casebook on Othello, Shaw's essay, "Othello: Pure Melodrama," goes on to state that "There is not a touch of character in it that goes below the skin; and the fitful attempts to make Iago something better than a melodramatic villain only make a hopeless mess of him and his motives." However, even Shaw could not help but praise Shakespeare's gift of words. Shaw continued by stating that despite these flaws, the play "remains magnificent by the volume of its passion and the splendor of its word-music, which sweep the scenes up to a plane on which sense is drowned in sound. The words do not convey ideas: they are streaming ensigns and tossing branches to make the tempest of passion visible."
Over the production history of this play, critics have argued which role, Othello's or Iago's, was the most dramatic. Actors have switched from one role to the other, trying the character's voice on, trying to decide the same thing. Probably in no other play of Shakespeare's is it so difficult to decide which role dominates the other. In his essay, "The Noble Othello," A. C. Bradley chose to focus on Othello, whom he calls the "greatest poet of them all," referring to the strong lines that Shakespeare wrote for this character. Despite Othello's linguistic abilities and his confidence in his speech, Othello has many dangers to face. He is noble but vulnerable. Bradley wrote. "Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect." Other reasons for Othello's vulnerability, according to Bradley, are that "his trust, where he trusts, is absolute. Hesitation is almost impossible in him. He is extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously."
Elmer Edgar Stoll, writing in his essay "Othello: Tragedy of Effect," praises Shakespeare for his creation of the protagonist Othello. Stoll states that Othello is made the grandest and noblest of Shakespeare's lovers; and it is only through Iago's overwhelming reputation for honesty and sagacity, the impenetrableness of his mask together with the potency of his seductive acts, that he [Othello] is led astray and succumbs. "For the highest tragic effect it is the great and good man that succumbs." T. S. Eliot in his essay, "The Hero Cheering Himself Up," also praises Shakespeare by examining Othello's last speech of the play. The speech, Eliot states, exposes Othello's lack of humility, through Shakespeare's great ability to understand human nature. "What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself." Eliot then concludes: "I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare."
G. K. Hunter found the character of Othello very interesting and Shakespeare's creation very dramatic and true to life. In his essay "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Tragedy," Hunter described Othello in this way:
Othello is an underling not because he fails to be a 'master of his fate' but because he is human. Faced by the intensity of total commitment, absolute love, men must be underlings because they are not gods, because they are vulnerable, they mistake, rage, fall down, become comic grotesques, as Othello does when he tries to listen in on Cassio and Iago talking about Bianca. Under such circumstances love for the best of men can be no more than a commitment to the fallible. However heroic the commitment, however true the perception of an ineffaceable goodness, the rot cannot be stopped nor the wrong step redirected. For the quality of faith in another, which is the highest expression of love, is necessarily tragic when the faith is fastened to a frail and changeable object, alias a human being. Othello is simultaneously the most glamorous of Shakespeare's heroes and the most vulnerable; and the simultaneous presence of these two opposed qualities is not used to mark a division in Othello's nature … but rather a necessary condition of the heroic presence.
Anthony Davies, writing a historic background of the play for the book The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, wrote that "Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt alike praised the rich contrasts between its [the play's] characters and the skill of its design." Davies continued: "Although some 19th-century Americans … found the play's depiction of interracial marriage objectionable … most 19th-century critics found Othello convincingly noble."
David Bevington, writing in his essay "Shakespeare the Man," used the play to reflect on Shakespeare himself. Bevington wrote,
We are safe in saying only that a play like Othello must reveal his [Shakespeare's] own intense feelings about jealousy and his humane view of it: the emotional devastation, the self-blindness, the sorrow experienced for failing in this way, the self-accusation, the willingness finally to acknowledge with generosity of spirit that the fault was the man's alone, the need for remorse, and the unwillingness to forgive oneself.
And finally, Bernard Spivack, as quoted in Arthur M. Eastman's A Short History of Shakespearean Criticism, wrote: "The feeling between [Othello and Desdemona] scales love's loftiest romance and expresses more acutely than anywhere else in the English drama, the refinement of sexual love in the sentiment and literature of Renaissance Europe, the evolution of l'amour curtois to its richest spiritual possibilities." Shakespeare was able to do this, Spivack wrote, because of the contrasts that the poet set up in his play.
In a sense their [Desdemona's and Othello's] union is a proposition and the play their battlefield, testing whether love so conceived and dedicated can long endure. But poetry is at work upon the proposition to transform it into sensation, and commentary at its best can only hint at the immediate experience the play gives us of gentle Desdemona and the noble Moor.
Cowhig provides background on blacks in England during Shakespeare's time, stressing the use of racial stereotypes in the dramas of the period. Observing that black people were typically depicted as stock villains, she suggests that Shakespeare's presentation of the noble, dignified Othello as the hero of a tragedy must have been startling to Elizabethan audiences. Cowhig also examines how several characters in the play, especially Iago, are racially prejudiced. Iago's racism is the source of his hatred of Othello, she claims, and he plays on the prejudices of other characters to turn them against the Moor. Importantly, Cowhig emphasizes that, although Shakespeare consistently challenges stereotypes with his depiction of Othello, he also demonstrates that, in a white society, the Moor's color isolates him and makes him vulnerable.
It is difficult to assess the reactions and attitudes of people in sixteenth-century Britain to the relatively few blacks living amongst them. Their feelings would certainly be very mixed: strangeness and mystery producing a certain fascination and fostering a taste for the exotic: on the other hand prejudice and fear, always easily aroused by people different from ourselves, causing distrust and hostility. This hostility would be encouraged by the widespread belief in the legend that blacks were descendants of Ham in the Genesis story, punished for sexual excess by their blackness. Sexual potency was therefore one of the attributes of the prototype black. Other qualities associated with black people were courage, pride, guilelessness, credulity and easily aroused passions—the list found in John Leo's The Geographical History of Africa, a book written in Arabic early in the sixteenth century and translated into English in 1600. Contemporary attitudes may have been more influenced by literary works such as this than by direct experience; but recently the part played by such direct contacts has been rediscovered. The scholarly and original study [Othello's Countrymen] by Eldred Jones of these contacts and their effects on Renaissance drama has transformed contemporary attitudes.
Black people were introduced into plays and folk dancing in mediaeval England and later, during the sixteenth century, they often appeared in the more sophisticated court masques. In these, the blackness was at first suggested by a very fine lawn [linen fabric] covering the faces, necks, arms and hands of the actors. Then black stockings, masks and wigs were used; such items are mentioned in surviving lists of properties [theater "props"]. These characters were mainly valued for the exotic aesthetic effects which their contrasting colour provided. The culmination of this tradition can be seen in Ben Jonson's Masque of Blackness in 1605, which he produced in answer to Queen Anne's request that the masquers should be 'black-mores at first'. The theme is based upon the longing of the black daughters of Niger to gain whiteness and beauty. This surely contradicts the idea that Elizabethans and Jacobeans were not conscious of colour and had no prejudice: the desirability of whiteness is taken for granted!
Elizabethan drama also used Moorish characters for visual effects and for their association with strange and remote countries. In [Christopher] Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, for instance, the three Moorish kings play little part in the plot, and have no individual character. Their main contribution to the play is in adding to the impression of power and conquest by emphasising the extent of Tamburlaine's victories. Their blackness also provides a variety of visual effects in the masques. Marlowe's plays reflect the curiosity of his contemporaries about distant countries, and must have whetted the appetites of his audiences for war and conquest; but the black characters are seen from the outside and have no human complexity …
Only as we recognise the familiarity of the figure of the black man as villain in Elizabethan drama can we appreciate what must have been the startling impact on Shakespeare's audience of a black hero of outstanding qualities in his play Othello. Inevitably we are forced to ask questions which we cannot satisfactorily answer. Why did Shakespeare choose a black man as the hero of one of his great tragedies? What experience led the dramatist who had portrayed the conventional stereotype in Aaron [in Titus Andronicus] in 1590 to break completely with tradition ten years later? Had Shakespeare any direct contact with black people? Why did he select the tale of Othello from the large number of Italian stories available to him?
We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but we may speculate. Until the publication of Eldred Jones' study, Othello's Countrymen, in 1965, it was generally assumed that Shakespeare depended only on literary sources for his black characters. Although the presence of black people in England is well documented, it went unrecognised. There are two main sources of information. One is [Richard] Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, the huge collection of narratives of Elizabethan sailors and traders which Hakluyt collected and published in twelve volumes. Volumes VI and XI describe voyages during which black men from West Africa were taken aboard, brought back to England, and afterwards used as interpreters on subsequent voyages. Later, between 1562 and 1568, [John] Hawkins had the unhappy distinction of being the first of the English gentleman slave-traders; as well as bringing 'blackamoores' to England, he sold hundreds of black slaves to Spain.
The other evidence is in the series of royal proclamations and state papers which call attention to the 'great number of Negroes and blackamoors' in the realm, 'of which kinde of people there are all-ready here too manye'. They were regarded by Queen Elizabeth as a threat to her own subjects 'in these hard times of dearth'. Negotiations were carried on between the Queen and Casper van Senden, merchant of Lubeck, to cancel her debt to him for transporting between two and three hundred English prisoners from Spain and Portugal back to England by allowing him to take up a similar number of unwanted black aliens—presumably to sell them as slaves. Although the correspondence shows that the deal never materialised, since the 'owners' of these 'blackamoors' refused to give them up, it is clear that there were several hundreds of black people living in the households of the aristocracy and landed gentry, or working in London taverns …
Thus the sight of black people must have been familiar to Londoners. London was a very busy port, but still a relatively small and overcrowded city, so Shakespeare could hardly have avoided seeing them. What thoughts did he have as he watched their faces, men uprooted from their country, their homes and families? I cannot help thinking of Rembrandt's moving study of The Two Negroes painted some sixty years later, which expresses their situation poignantly. The encounter with real blacks on the streets of London would have yielded a sense of their common humanity, which would have conflicted with the myths about their cultural, sexual and religious 'otherness' found in the travel books. The play between reality and myth informs Titus Andronicus: Shakespeare presents Aaron as a demon, but at the end of the play suddenly shatters the illusion of myth by showing Aaron to be a black person with common feelings of compassion and fatherly care for his child. In Othello too there is conscious manipulation of reality and myth: Othello is presented initially (through the eyes of Iago and Roderigo) as a dangerous beast, before he reveals himself to be of noble, human status, only to degenerate later to the condition of bloodthirsty and irrational animalism. It is surely not surprising that Shakespeare, the dramatist whose sympathy for the despised alien upsets the balance of the otherwise 'unrealistic' The Merchant of Venice should want to create a play about a kind of black man not yet seen on the English stage; a black man whose humanity is eroded by the cunning and racism of whites.
Shakespeare's choice of a black hero for his tragedy must have been deliberate. His direct source was an Italian tale from [Geraldi] Cinthio's Hecatommithi (1565); he followed this tale in using the love between a Moor and a young Venetian girl of high birth as the basis of his plot, but in little else. The original story is crude and lacking in subtlety. Cinthio, in accordance with the demands of the time, expresses concern that his tale should have a moral purpose. He gives it as recommending that young people should not marry against the family's wishes, and especially not with someone separated from them by nature, heaven and mode of life. Such a moral has nothing to do with Shakespeare's play, except in so far as he uses it ironically, so his choice of the tale remains obscure. Perhaps he regretted his creation of the cruel and malevolent Aaron, and found himself imagining the feelings of proud men, possibly of royal descent in their own countries, humiliated and degraded as slaves. Whatever his intentions may have been, we have to take seriously the significance of Othello's race in our interpretation of the play. This is all the more important because teachers will find it largely ignored by critical commentaries.
The first effect of Othello's blackness is immediately grasped by the audience, but not always by the reader. It is that he is placed in isolation from the other characters from the very beginning of the play. This isolation is an integral part of Othello's experience constantly operative even if not necessarily at a conscious level; anyone black will readily appreciate that Othello's colour is important for our understanding of his character. Even before his first entry we are forced to focus our attention on his race: the speeches of Iago and Roderigo in the first scene are full of racial antipathy. Othello is 'the thick lips' [I. i. 66], 'an old black ram' [I. i. 88], 'a lascivious Moor' [I. i. 126] and 'a Barbary horse' [I. i. 111-12], and 'he is making the beast with two backs' [cf. I. i. 116-17] with Desdemona. The language is purposely offensive and sexually coarse, and the animal images convey, as they always do, the idea of someone less than human. Iago calculates on arousing in Brabantio all the latent prejudice of Venetian society, and he succeeds. To Brabantio the union is 'a treason of the blood' [I. i. 169], and he feels that its acceptance will reduce Venetian statesmen to 'bondslaves and pagans' [I. ii. 99].
Brabantio occupies a strong position in society. He
is much beloved
And hath in his effect a voice potential
As double as the Duke's
[I. ii. 12-14]
according to Iago. Although he represents a more liberal attitude than Iago's, at least on the surface, his attitude is equally prejudiced. He makes Othello's meetings with Desdemona possible by entertaining him in his own home, but his reaction to the news of the elopement is predictable. He is outraged that this black man should presume so far, and concludes that he must have used charms and witchcraft since otherwise his daughter could never 'fall in love with what she feared to look on' [I. iii. 98]. To him the match is 'against all rules of nature' [I. iii. 101], and when he confronts Othello his abuse is as bitter as Iago's.
But before this confrontation, the audience has seen Othello and we have been impressed by two characteristics. First his pride:
I fetch my life and being
From men of royal
siege. [I. ii. 21-2]
and secondly, his confidence in his own achievements and position:
My services which I have done the Signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints.
[I. ii. 18-19]
It is hard to overestimate the reactions of a Renaissance audience to this unfamiliar black man, so noble in bearing and so obviously master of the situation. But however great Othello's confidence, his colour makes his vulnerability plain. If the state had not been in danger, and Othello essential to its defence, Brabantio's expectation of support from the Duke and senate would surely have been realised. He is disappointed; the Duke treats Othello as befits his position as commander-in-chief, addressing him as 'valiant Othello'. The only support Brabantio receives is from the first senator, whose parting words, 'Adieu, brave Moor, Use Desdemona well' [I. iii. 291], while not unfriendly, reveal a superior attitude. Would a senator have so advised a newly married general if he had been white and equal?
Desdemona's stature in the play springs directly from Othello's colour. Beneath a quiet exterior lay the spirited independence which comes out in her defence of her marriage before the Senate. She has resisted the pressures of society to make an approved marriage, shunning 'The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation' [I. ii. 68]. Clearly, Brabantio had exerted no force: he was no Capulet [in Romeo and Juliet]. But Desdemona was well aware of the seriousness of her decision to marry Othello: 'my downright violence and storm of fortune' [I. iii. 249] she calls it. Finally she says that she 'saw Othello's visage in his mind' [I. iii. 252]: obviously the audience, conditioned by prejudice, had to make the effort to overcome, with her, the tendency to associate Othello's black face with evil, or at least with inferiority.
It is made clear that the marriage between Othello and Desdemona is fully consummated. Desdemona is as explicit as decorum allows:
If I be left behind
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for why I love him are bereft me.
[I. iii. 255-57]
Othello, on the other hand, disclaims the heat of physical desire when asking that she should go with him to Cyprus:
I therefore beg it not
To please the palate of my appetite,
Nor to comply with heat—the young affects
In me defunct.
[I. iii. 261-64]
These speeches relate directly to Othello's colour. Desdemona has to make it clear that his 'sooty bosom' (her father's phrase) is no obstacle to desire; while Othello must defend himself against the unspoken accusations, of the audience as well as of the senators, because of the association of sexual lust with blackness.
In Act III Scene iii, often referred to as the temptation scene, Othello's faith in Desdemona is gradually undermined by Iago's insinuations, and he is eventually reduced by jealousy to an irrational madness. Iago's cynical cunning plays upon Othello's trustfulness:
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.
[I. iii. 399-400]
The spectacle of Othello's disintegration is perhaps the most painful in the whole Shakespeare canon: and Iago's destructive cruelty has seemed to many critics to be inadequately motivated. They have spoken of 'motiveless malignity' and 'diabolic intellect', sometimes considering Iago's to be the most interesting character in the play. I think this is an unbalanced view, resulting from the failure to recognise racial issues. Iago's contempt for Othello, despite his grudging recognition of his qualities, his jealousy over Cassio's 'preferment', and the gnawing hatred which drives him on are based upon an arrogant racism. He harps mercilessly upon the unnaturalness of the marriage between Othello and Desdemona:
Not to affect many proposed matches,
Of her own clime, complexion and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural.
[III. iii. 229-33]
The exclamation of disgust and the words 'smell' and 'foul' reveal a phobia so obvious that it is strange that it is often passed over. The attack demolishes Othello's defences because this kind of racial contempt exposes his basic insecurity as an alien in a white society. His confidence in Desdemona expressed in 'For she had eyes, and chose me' [I. iii. 189], changes to the misery of
Haply for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have …
[III. iii. 263-65]
This is one of the most moving moments in the play. Given Iago's hatred and astuteness in exploiting other people's weaknesses, which we see in the plot he sets for Cassio, the black Othello is easy game. We are watching the baiting of an alien who cannot fight back on equal terms.
Othello's jealous madness is the more terrifying because of the noble figure he presented in the early scenes, when he is addressed as 'brave Othello' and 'our noble and valiant general' [II. ii. 1], and when proud self-control is his essential quality; he refuses to be roused to anger by Brabantio and Roderigo: 'Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them' [I. ii. 58]. After his breakdown we are reminded by Ludovico of his previous moral strengths and self-control: 'Is this the nature / Whom passion could not shake?' [IV. ii. 265-66]. Thus the portrait is of a man who totally contradicts the contemporary conception of the black man as one easily swayed by passion. He is the most attractive of all Shakespeare's soldier heroes: one who has achieved high rank entirely on merit. His early history given in Desdemona's account of his wooing is typical of the bitter experience of an African of his times 'Taken by the insolent foe / And sold to slavery' [I. iii. 137-38]. Othello's military career is everything to him, and the famous 'farewell' speech of Act IV, with its aura of romatic nostalgia, expresses the despair of a man whose achievements have been reduced to nothing: 'Othello's occupation gone' [III. iii. 357]. Spoken by a black Othello, the words 'The big wars / That make ambition virtue' [III. iii. 349-350], have a meaning beyond more rhetoric. Ambition was still reckoned as a sin in Shakespeare's time; but in Othello's case it has been purified by his courage and endurance and by the fact that only ambition could enable him to escape the humiliations of his early life. When he realises that his career is irrevocably over, he looks back at the trappings of war—the 'pride, pomp and circumstance' [III. iii. 354], the 'spirit-stirring drum' [III. iii. 352] and the rest—as a dying man looks back on life.
The sympathies of the audience for Othello are never completely destroyed. The Russian actor, Ostuzhev who set himself to study the character of Othello throughout his career, saw the problem of the final scene as 'acting the part so as to make people love Othello and forget he is a murderer'. When Othello answers Ludovico's rhetorical question 'What shall be said of thee?' [V. ii. 293] with the words, 'An honourable murderer, if you will' [V. ii. 294], we are not outraged by such a statement: instead we see in it a terrible pathos. What we are waiting for is the unmasking of Iago. When this comes, Othello looks down at Iago's feet for the mythical cloven hoofs and demands an explanation from that 'demi-devil', reminding us that blackness of soul in this play belongs to the white villain rather than to his black victim.
The fact that Othello was a baptised Christian had considerable importance for Shakespeare's audience. This is made explicit from the beginning when he quells the drunken broil with the words: 'For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl' [II. iii. 172]. In the war he was seen to be leading the forces of Christendom against the Turks. But once Othello becomes subservient to Iago and vows his terrible revenge he seems to revert to superstitious beliefs. How else can we interpret his behaviour over the handkerchief? He seems under the spell of its long history—woven by an old sibyl out of silkworms strangely 'hallowed', given to his mother by an Egyptian with thought-reading powers, and linked with the dire prophecy of loss of love should it be lost. Yet in the final scene it becomes merely, 'An antique token / My father gave my mother' [V. ii. 216-17]. This irrational inconsistency is dramatically credible and suggests that when reason is overthrown, Othello's Christian beliefs give way to the superstitions he has rejected. The Christian veneer is thin …
Shakespeare raises these and other questions about blackness and whiteness without fully resolving them. It rested upon the Elizabethan audience to consider them, this very act of deliberation involving a disturbance of racial complacency. If his purpose was to unsettle or perplex his audience, then he succeeded beyond expectation, for the question of Othello's blackness, and his relation with the white Desdemona, is one that provoked contradictory and heated responses in subsequent centuries.
Source: Ruth Cowhig, "Blacks in English Renaissance Drama and the Role of Shakespeare's Othello," in The Black Presence in English Literature, Manchester University Press, 1985, pp. 1-25.
In the essay below, Clemen analyzes the relationship between character and imagery in Othello. He focuses on the characters of Othello and Iago, contrasting the way in which Shakespeare uses language to illustrate their actions and motivations. Othello's language is characterized by self-obsession and an extensive use of imagery; Iago's by a focus on others and a deficit of imagery. Furthermore, argues Clemen, Othello's imagery is dynamic, containing a "swelling opulence and poetic force, while Iago's is static and dry.
In this chapter we shall try to show Shakespeare's art of adapting imagery to the character using it, so that imagery becomes a means of characterizing the dramatis personae. Othello furnishes a particularly good example for a study of this kind, in that it turns upon the relation between two opposite and contrasted characters, Iago and Othello.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Romeo and Juliet, written by Shakespeare in 1595, is another form of a tragic love story. Two young people fall in love but are prohibited by their families from marrying. Their distraught emotions lead them to suicide.
- Othello: A Novel, published in 1995, is Julius Lester's fictional form of the story told by Shakespeare. In Lester's work, the plot is similar, as are most of the characters. The story takes place in England and revolves around the theme of jealousy.
- Dr. Kenneth C. Ruge and Barry Lenson have written a book to help explain the syndrome they call the Othello Response, a jealous rage such as the one that Othello succumbs to. The Othello Response: Dealing with Jealousy, Suspicion, and Rage in Your Relationship was published in 2003 and through this book, the authors help readers recognize the signs of jealousy. Through case studies, they show how jealousy can ruin relationships and how readers can get a grip on this pervasive and destructive emotional reaction.
- In the same year that Shakespeare wrote Othello, he looked at love in another way, writing Measure for Measure (1604). This play has been classified as one of his problem plays, meaning it is hard to tell if this is a romance or a tragedy. In a storyline that twists and turns with disguises and deceptions used to spice the drama, Shakespeare examines sexuality outside of marriage and its repercussions.
The growing connection between imagery and character is a particularly important aspect of the process by which the images become more closely related to the drama. It is part of the more comprehensive development, traceable throughout Shakespeare, whereby each character is eventually given his own language. In the early comedies, as we have seen, the language used by the characters is suited to the atmosphere of the play, but does not grow directly out of their own individual nature. We only find, here and there, an adaptation of the language to the various groups of characters: servants speak a language different from that of courtiers, etc. In Shakespeare's "middle period" we discover the beginning of a more subtle differentiation. But this differentiation is as yet restricted to certain outstanding types such as Falstaff and Parolles, the Nurse and Shylock, Mrs. Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. Furthermore it is modified, as in Romeo and Juliet or in the Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare's tendency to give to whole scenes a certain stylistic pattern which often overrides the consistent individualization of single characters through language. The individu-alization of characters through language in the above-mentioned cases, moreover, mostly consists in the regular and recurrent use of certain obvious features of style and syntax, easy to comprehend and usually few in number. Compared to later plays, Shakespeare uses in general rather simple devices and does not avail himself of all the resources offered by language and style for differentiation. A more subtle and complex characterization through language and imagery could be seen in Richard II. Here, however, it was only the dominant figure of the king who was thus individualized. In the great tragedies we find Shakespeare's technique of characterizing his persons through imagery fully developed. In Hamlet, each character was given his own mode of speech, and from Hamlet to Antony and Cleopatra this discrimination of language applies to all tragedies until, in the romances, we find a notable modification of this technique—indeed, to a certain extent, a decline.
There are several ways of studying imagery as a revelation of character. One is to consider the subject matter of the images, and to ask whether the objects and themes occurring in the imagery stand in a significant relation to the character of the person using the image. Another method of approach is to inquire into the form in which the images appear, and to ask whether the syntax, the context and similar factors might give us a hint of the nature of that relationship. It may also be illuminating to examine the frequency or recurrence of images in the speech of the several persons and the occasions on which they use imagery. The investigation of whether a character adjusts his imagery to his partner in the dialogue may also yield revealing results. Finally, the question whether the imagery of a character runs on the same lines up to the end of the play or undergoes a noticeable change in the course of the drama, may throw some light upon the function of the imagery in indicating a spiritual change in the character.
Othello and Iago have entirely different attitudes towards their images. Iago is consciously looking for those which best suit his purpose. With Othello, however, the images rise naturally out of his emotions. They come to him easily and unconsciously whenever he is talking. He is a character endowed with a rich imagination; it is part of his very nature to use imagery. Iago, on the contrary, is not a person with an imaginative mind; his attitude towards the world is rational and speculative. We find fewer images in his language than in Othello's. When he is alone, he uses scarcely any imagery, a fact which proves that the use of imagery is not natural to him, but rather a conscious and studied device by which he wishes to influence those to whom he is speaking. Iago selects his images with deliberate intent, he "constructs" them in the very same manner as he constructs his whole language. It is not without significance that Iago introduces many of his images with as and like, which we rarely find in Othello's language. The particles as and like show that the speaker is fully conscious of the act of comparing; the comparison is added to the object to be compared as something special. In metaphorical language, however, both elements melt into one; the object itself appears as an image, as a metaphor. This differentiation should not be carried too far, but in this case the preference for comparisons is suited to Iago's conscious and studied manner of speech. Furthermore, Iago's images scarcely ever refer to himself, whereas Othello in his images continually has himself in mind. Iago likes the form of general statement; he places a distance between himself and his images. He does not care to identify himself with what he says; he would rather have his utterances understood as being as objective, neutral and general as possible. In Othello's language, however, the personal pronoun I is predominant; he is almost always talking of himself, his life and his feelings. And thus his imagery serves also to express his own emotions and his own nature. This becomes increasingly clear from the very beginning: for instance, in the third scene of the first act, when Othello relates his life to the Duke; in II. i., deeply moved at seeing Desdemona again when he cries out, "O my soul's joy!" and finds that magnificent image; (quoted on p. 123); when he compares his own thoughts to the "Pontic sea" (III. iii. 453); when, finally, he speaks of his love for Desdemona and of his disillusionment in terms of immeasurable passion (v. ii.). In these cases, as in others, with the innocence and frankness characteristic of strong natures who live within themselves, he always takes himself as the point of departure.
In contrast to this, Iago seeks to achieve an effect upon the other characters with his similes and images. He measures his words with calculating guile, attuning them to the person he has to deal with. Consider, for instance, the images which he employs with Roderigo and Cassio in I. iii. or II. i. from this point of view; we find that they are devised to kindle in the brain of the other man a notion that will further his own plans; they are a means of influencing, or they may also be a means of dissimulation. The whole diction then appears attuned to the mood and sphere of the other character. Iago seeks to poison the others with his images; he aims to implant in the minds of his victims a conceit which will gradually assume gigantic proportions.
The fact that Iago speaks so much in prose is likewise characteristic of him. Let us look at his imagery in the following passages:
If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion. (I. iii. 330)
the food that to him now is as luscious as locusts, shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida. (I. iii. 354)
you are bud now cast in his mood, a punishment more in policy than in malice; even so as one would beat his offenceless dog to affright an imperious lion: (II. iii. 274)
Shakespeare lets Iago clothe his comparisons here in euphuistic style. This shows how conventional stylistic patterns are employed in the tragedies as a means of individual characterization. For precisely this euphuistic style, with its combination of antithesis, consonance and parallelism, corresponds to the cool, and at the same time hypocritical nature of Iago. It would be wholly foreign to the spontaneous and unconscious Othello to force imagery into such an artificial mould of parallelisms and symmetrically constructed periods. The euphuistic pattern of style presupposes that the sentences are carefully prepared, and that they are balanced one against the other, before their utterance. The euphuistic style is an intellectual, hyperconscious child of the brain, combining skilful ingenuity with calculation. All these elements are typical of Iago himself.
The difference between Othello's and Iago's imagery—like everything else in Shakespeare—cannot be reduced to a simple formula. But of all the contradistinctions which might at least give us a hint of this difference, that existing between the concept of the static and of the dynamic comes closest to the real heart of the matter. Iago's images are static, because they are incapable of further inner growth, because the objects appear in a dry and lifeless manner, because—as in those euphuistic passages we have spoken of—a narrow pattern of stylistic construction hinders the further development of the image. The prosaic brevity of Iago's images stands in contrast with the swelling opulence and poetic force of Othello's imagery. This is Iago's way of speaking:
IAGO. but indeed my invention
Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frize;
(II. i. 126)
He'll be as full of quarrel and offence
As my young mistress' dog.
(II. iii. 52)
Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our
wills are gardeners;
(I. iii. 323)
And this is Othello's language:
OTHELLO. O my soul's joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!
And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high and duck again as low
As hell's from heaven!
(II. i. 187)
Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.
(III. iii. 453)
Iago would be wholly incapable of the moving poetic language uttered by Othello; and, likewise, Othello could never be the author of Iago's cold and cynical utterances. In Othello's imagery everything is in movement, because everything springs from his own emotion. His images always appear at crucial points of his inner experience; the forcefulness and agitation of his images are an expression of his own passionate nature. Iago, on the other hand, stands not in an emotional, but in a rational relationship to his images.
Through the imagery Othello's emotional nature is revealed to us as highly sensuous, easily kindled and interpreting everything through the senses. Othello's metaphors show us this peculiar activity of all his senses, his tendency to sense all abstract matters as palpable, tastable, audible and visible things. He can only think, even of his retaliation, in terms of extraordinary physical pain:
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
(V. ii. 279)
This last passage may also once again reveal the heightened poetical nature of Othello's imagery, his preference for bright, colourful, intense pictures. This feature can, of course, also be related to Othello's race, and these images thus link up with another group of metaphors, to be discussed later, which reproduce the peculiar colour and atmosphere of Othello's sphere of life.
A closer examination of the content of Othello's and Iago's imagery reveals further characteristic differences. The objects named by Iago belong to a lower and purely material world, whereas the things alive in Othello's imagination generally belong to a higher sphere. Iago's imagery teems with repulsive animals of a low order; with references to eating and drinking and bodily functions and with technical and commercial terms. In Othello's language, however, the elements prevail—the heavens, the celestial bodies, the wind and the sea—the forces of nature, everything light and moving that corresponds best to his nature. At moments of intense emotion his imagery links heaven and hell together, bearing out his inner relation to the cosmic powers, and revealing the enormous dimensions and power of his imaginative conceptions. Hyperbole is therefore more often found in Othello's imagery than in that used by other Shakespearian heroes. Othello's already quoted welcoming words to Desdemona in Act II may again serve as an example for the breadth of his imaginative world:
And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell's from heaven!
(II. i. 189)
But the contrast between Othello's and Iago's imagery will perhaps become most clear by comparing how differently the same theme is expressed in the language of each. Miss Spurgeon has already pointed out how differently the sea appears in Othello's and Iago's speech. Iago employs technical maritime terms, and colours some of his images with sailor's jargon. But the sea as a whole does not appear in his imagery. He looks at the sea only from a professional point of view. He is at home on the sea, but only in a practical way.
In Othello's imagination, on the other hand, the sea lives in its whole breadth and adventurous power. In his language it appears as a force of nature and as scenery. Again and again it occurs to Othello for the expression of his inner emotions through vivid, connected images.
We may compare, too, the different ways in which Othello and Iago speak of war and martial life. Iago speaks of the "trade of war" (I. ii. 1) whereas Othello thinks of the "Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war" (III. iii. 354). The life of a soldier is for Iago not an ideal, but a sort of business, in which everything is weighed according to material advantage and recompense. This mercenary attitude betrays itself when he introduces expressions taken from the language of commerce, as in the following passage:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calm'd
By debitor and creditor.
(I. i. 28)
Othello's conception of war is worlds apart. He won Desdemona with the simple telling of his adventures and brave deeds as a soldier:
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth scapes i' the imminent deadly breach,
(I. iii. 135)
and when, at the climax of the action, he loses his inner balance, it is the life of the soldier, it is war, which appears in his mind. In moving words he takes leave of his beloved element:
Farewell the plumed troop; and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
(III. iii. 349)
Thus in Othello the imagery has the function of making visible to us the contrasting life-sphere and background of the chief characters. In the tragedies Shakespeare treads new paths in order to bring home to us the nature of a character. The sources from which our conception of a character in the drama was formed and fed, were, apart from the action of the play, the character's behaviour in different situations and the words, through which he informs us of his plans, thoughts and feelings, and finally how the other characters react to him and what they say of him. These means of characterization naturally remain effective up to the last plays. But in the great tragedies Shakespeare creates with a greater fullness and differentiation the atmosphere typical of each central character. Othello brings with him the magic spell of distant lands and exotic things; his language is tinged with the lustre and strangeness of this other world out of which he comes. Shakespeare will have him understood from the very beginning as the "wheeling and extravagant stranger" (as Roderigo terms Othello in the first scene, I. i. 137). Already Othello's first long speech before the Venetian Senate is suffused with such touches. In the dramatic structure, this speech not only gives us the immediate proof of Othello's innocence, but it also presents us with a colourful picture of the world of Othello's origin. Othello tells of "Cannibals" and "Anthropophagi" and of
antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven,
(I. iii. 140)
In his images we hear further of the "Pontic sea", of the "Propontic", "Hellespont", Ottomites, of Sibyls and strange myths, of a "sword of Spain", the "icebrooks' temper" (V. ii. 253), and of "Arabian trees" (V. ii. 351).
Iago, too, betrays his nature in his language, and this not only when he sets forth his base plans and intentions, or when he tries to entangle and to deceive the other characters. Even those words which at first glance seem to have no bearing upon the immediate issue, can reveal his personality to us. We need only examine what Iago thinks about other people, about love and general human values, in order to know what kind of man he is. If he is thinking of love, the image of rutting animals always makes its appearance in his imagination (I. i. 89; I. i. 112; III. iii. 403). He drags all higher values down to his low level. Whereas Othello characteristically never discusses general human values, Iago delights in defining them in a derogatory way. Love—according to his definition—is only "a sect, or scion" of "our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts" (I. iii. 336). "Virtue! a fig!" he cries, shortly before (I. iii. 322), "honesty's a fool and loses what it works for" (III. iii. 382), and "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition", we read in another passage (II. iii. 268).
Iago betrays to us his own cunning method towards his victims in two characteristic images. He views his action against Othello, Desdemona and Cassio as an ensnaring with the net and as a poisoning:
… with as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio …
(II. i. 169)
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
(II. iii. 368)
This image is echoed in Othello's desperate question at the end of his life: "Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?" (V. ii. 302). The idea of poisoning is quite conscious in Iago, when he seeks to awaken that false suspicion in Othello:
I'll pour this pestilence into his ear,
That she repeals him for her body's lust;
(II. iii. 362)
The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons,
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood
Burn like the mines of sulphur.
(III. iii. 325)
Almost everything Iago says—not only his imagery—is marked by this conscious and purposeful quality. Iago always adapts himself to his partner in conversation, he uses his language as a chief means of influence and ensnarement. He is no stranger in this life, like Othello, but is indeed well informed about the abilities and the behaviour of men of the most various states and classes. This already becomes clear in the first sixty-five lines. Here he contrasts types of men and characterizes them with biting comparisons:
You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,
For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd:
(I. i. 44)
Such passages show how much he is accustomed to observe others and how he goes through life with critical and open eyes. In fact, the best and most appropriate judgement of Othello is uttered by him:
The Moor is of a free and open nature, (I. iii. 405)
The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
(II. i. 297)
It is precisely this very "open nature" which is revealed in Othello's imagery and causes it to differ so decidedly from Iago's imagery. Othello does not measure his imagery by the effect which it is to have upon others; he speaks what is in his heart. Iago, on the other hand, speaks as it seems expedient to him. Othello's images can therefore be looked upon as a genuine self-revelation, and we quote again the famous passage from the third act:
Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.
(III. iii. 453)
This image appears at the critical turning-point of the play: Iago has supplied him with the evidence of the handkerchief, Othello's suspicion is now hardened. The image is a marvel of language in this scene; at the same time, it is premonitory, casting light upon the following, often hardly comprehensible events. Here, in a simile, the tempestuousness and boundlessness of Othello's character find clear expression, a nature, which, when once seized by a real suspicion, rushes violently along this new path, incapable of every half-heartedness, of a return, or of any compromise. To this absoluteness of his character Othello gives metaphorical expression once again in a later passage, when he faces Desdemona in the hour of final decision. The images by which he here reveals to us the fundamental law of his nature no longer have anything in common with "poetic diction"; no language other than the language of imagery could express what is moving Othello at this moment in terms more poignant, more forceful or more convincing.
But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,
Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubim,—
Ay, there, look grim as hell!
(IV. ii. 58)
The repulsive image of the "cistern for foul toads" is followed by the magnificent vision of "Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubim"—this bold sequence symbolizes the tremendous tension in Othello's soul and points to the abrupt change which is taking place within him.
It is indeed imagery which announces and accompanies the change that is taking place in Othello. In the third act Othello suffers the first great shock to his feeling of security and—like all of Shakespeare's tragic heroes in suchmoments—he, too, now calls upon the heavenly powers. He swears "by yond marble heaven" (III. iii. 460) and exclaims:
Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!
(III. iii. 446)
From this point on the heavens, the stars and the elements appear again and again in his language. He calls upon all the elements as witnesses and accusers of Desdemona's supposed unfaithfulness:
Heaven stops the nose at it and the moon winks,
The bawdy wind that kisses all it meets
Is hush'd within the hollow mine of earth,
And will not hear it.
(IV. ii. 77)
It is not merely chance that in the final scene (v. ii.) the words heaven and heavenly occur seventeen times and that this scene is particularly rich in mighty adjurations of heaven. Himself nearing the end, Othello's imagination seems to be spellbound with the idea of heaven:
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe,
Should yawn at alteration.
(V. ii. 99)
If heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I'ld not have sold her for it.
(V. iii. 144)
… Are there no stones in heaven
But what serve for the thunder?
(V. ii. 234)
when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.
(V. ii. 273)
It is furthermore characteristic of the way in which the imagery portrays Othello's inner alteration, that from that third scene of the third act on, Othello's fantasy is filled with images of repulsive animals such as were up to that point peculiar to Iago. Iago's endeavour to undermine and poison Othello's imagination by his own gloomy and low conceptions has been successful.
Thus an examination of the imagery in Othello has been able to reveal the connection existing between the content of the image and the time of its appearance.
Source: Wolfgang Clemen, "Othello," in The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery, Methuan and Co. Ltd., 1977, pp. 119-32.
Granville-Barker examines the dramatic structure of Othello and explicates the relation between Shakespeare's manipulation of time and the theme of sexual jealousy. He maintains that time in Act I passes naturally so that the audience can become familiar with the characters. Act II, however, introduces contractions and ambiguities of time that are sustained until Act V, scene ii, when "natural" time resumes, presenting a comprehensive view of the ruined Moor. The critic contends that the precipitous action is both dramatically convincing, since it hurries the audience along, and consistent with the recklessness of Iago and the pathological sexual jealousy that flaws the character of Othello.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
Source: Harley Granville-Barker, "Excerpt," in Prefaces to Shakespeare: Othello, Sidgwick & Jackson, Ltd., 1945, pp. 1-35.
Bevington, David, "Shakespeare the Man," in A Companion to Shakespeare, edited by David Scott Kastan, Blackwell Publishers, 1999, pp. 9-21.
Bradley, A. C., "The Noble Othello," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 139-46.
Davies, Anthony, "Othello," in The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, edited by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 330-33.
Eastman, Arthur M., A Short History of Shakespearean Criticism, Random House, 1968, pp. 350-51.
Eliot, T. S., "The Hero Cheering Himself Up," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 153-55.
Hunter, G. K., "Shakespeare and the Traditions of Tragedy," in The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by Stanley Wells, Cambridge University Press, 1997 pp. 123-41.
Neill, Michael, "Othello and Race," in Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare's Othello, edited by Peter Erickson and Maurice Hunt, The Modern Language Association of America, 2005, pp. 37-52.
Shakespeare, William, Othello, edited by Marie Macaisa and Dominique Raccah, Sourcebooks, Inc, 2005.
Shaw, G. B., "Othello: Pure Melodrama," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 135-38.
Stoll, Elmer Edgar, "Othello: Tragedy of Effect," in A Casebook on Othello, edited by Leonard F. Dean, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961, pp. 147-52.
Auden, W. H., "The Joker in the Pack," in The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays, Random House, 1948, pp. 246-72.
Auden compares Iago to a practical joker who has no personal feelings or values but contemptuously uses the very real desires of other people to gull and manipulate them. Auden also claims that Othello prizes his marriage to Desdemona not for any great love he holds for her, but rather because it signals to him, mistakenly, that he has fully integrated into Venetian society.
Dash, Irene G., "A Woman Tamed: Othello," in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, Columbia University Press, 1981. pp. 103-30.
Dash writes that Othello demonstrates "the cost to husband and wife … of attempting to conform to stereotyped ideals of marriage."
Gregson, J. M., "Othello," in Public and Private Man in Shakespeare, Croom Helm, 1983, pp. 156-76.
Gregson maintains that the characters Othello and Hamlet are opposites, and argues that the true tragedy of Othello is the Moor's inability to separate his public conduct as military leader from his private judgments as husband.
Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, W. W. Norton and Company, 2004.
Shakespeare's life is recounted not just through the bard's writing but also through the social, religious, and economic culture that he lived in.
Grudin, Robert, "Contrariety as Structure: The Later Tragedies," Mighty Opposites: Shakespeare and Renaissance Contrariety, University of California Press, 1979, pp. 119-79.
Grudin finds that Desdemona's "type of lamblike femininity" is compelling to Othello but not to Shakespeare and thus, the dramatist demonstrates that her passive helplessness is implicitly ironic, for it "sharpens the impulse to aggression in others." The ambiguities of her virtue are comparable, Grudin maintains, to the complexities of Iago's wickedness.
Hyman, Stanley Edgar, Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation, Atheneum, 1970.
Hyman assesses Iago's motives from five different critical perspectives, alternately questioning whether the ensign should be viewed as "a stage villain, or Satan, or an artist, or a latent homosexual, or a Machiavel." A pluralistic approach to this issue, Hyman argues, demonstrates the "tension, paradox, and irony" in Shakespeare's portrayal of Iago, while a single line of inquiry can only produce one perspective that is "inevitably reductive and partial."
Neely, Carol Thomas, "Women and Men in Othello: 'What should such a fool / Do with so good a woman?'" in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 21-39.
Analysis of the kinship of the women in Othello and the heroines in Shakespeare's comedies which emphasizes their similar capacities to initiate courtship, tolerate men's fancies, and balance romantic idealism with a realistic view of sexuality.
Nicolle, David, The Moors: The Islamic West 7th-15th Centuries A.D., Osprey Publishing, 2001.
A history of battles and religious differences, as well as a richly diverse culture is presented in this history of the Moors in Europe.
Shapiro, James, A Year in the Life of Shakespeare: 1599, Harper Perennial, 2006.
Shapiro focuses on one year of the playwright's life, a year filled with special events in drama as well as in politics and the influences of these events on Shakespeare.
Vaughn, Virginia Mason, Othello: A Contextual History, Cambridge University, 1997.
Vaughn follows the production of Othello through the centuries, analyzing its effect on various cultures.
November 4, 1604, is the first recorded date of a performance of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice, although most scholars believe that is was first performed in 1600 or 1601. All records indicate that the play was an immediate success, and interest in the story continued unabated for four hundred years. The story of Othello the Moor, his lovely wife Desdemona, and the dastardly villain Iago was enacted countless times on stage, reworked as an opera, choreographed as a ballet, filmed multiple times, and transformed into television shows, novels, and movies. The title role of Othello became the quintessential Shakespearean role for black actors, although many white actors acted the part as well, and the villainy of Iago remained one of the most complicated and contested issues of contemporary Shakespeare scholarship. For Americans, historic issues of slavery and race made Othello an especially troubling and problematic play. Likewise, issues of gender, post-colonialism, diversity, and global perspective continued to generate a lively critical debate on the play. The play is easily available to readers in many editions; one of the most useful for students is the Norton Critical Edition (2004), edited by Edward Pechter. As of the early 2000s, interest in Othello was unlikely to abate; it remained a towering story of passion and rage.
William Shakespeare's life was a source of mystery and controversy among scholars of English literature. What little was known of his life was gleaned from documentary evidence and writings of his contemporaries. Shakespeare himself left no writings concerning his personal life and thus remained a frustrating enigma for biographers and critics alike.
Shakespeare was born to parents Mary and John Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Church records show that he was baptized on April 26, 1564; from this, scholars extrapolate that he was born several days earlier, and so April 23, 1564, is the traditional dating of his birth.
Shakespeare's father was a glover and was active in town government. That John Shakespeare's fortunes began to decline in about 1576 suggested to some scholars that the family may have been Catholic or had Catholic sympathies at a time when membership in the Church of England was required for any kind of social or financial standing.
It was assumed that Shakespeare attended the Stratford grammar school, where he would have learned Latin and studied the classics in depth, although little was known of his young life. In November 1582, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. Hathaway was eight years his senior and was pregnant with their first child at the time of their marriage. The couple had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, and the twins, Judith and Hamnet, born in 1585.
At this point, Shakespeare disappeared from records known as of 2004. Then he reappeared in 1592 in theatrical circles in London. Both Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe referred to Shakespeare in print. In 1593, poems by Shakespeare appeared in print. In all, Shakespeare composed some 154 sonnets during these early years.
In 1594, Shakespeare, along with Richard Burbage (perhaps the greatest actor of the day) and six other actors, formed the Lord Chamberlain's Men, an acting troupe. Over the next five years, Shakespeare both acted with the company and wrote plays for them. He was remarkably prolific, writing primarily comedies and histories during this period, with the exception of the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet in 1595.
In 1599, Shakespeare and his troupe began building the Globe Theater. In addition, around this time, Shakespeare began writing his great tragedies,
including Othello. Some critics have suggested that this tragic turn was precipitated by the death of his son Hamnet and his father in a short space of time. Although these deaths were recorded in documents, there was no hard evidence, as of the early 2000s, linking Shakespeare's change in writing to the events.
The first probable performance of Othello was in 1601 and 1602 and continued to be performed regularly in the following years. Shakespeare's last recorded stage appearance was in a play by Ben Jonson in 1603. After this date, he seemed to have devoted himself solely to writing. By 1611, twentieth-century biographers surmised he was living again in Stratford. In March 1616, Shakespeare changed his will, perhaps in anticipation of his own death. On his fifty-second birthday, April 23, 1616, Shakespeare died in Stratford.
The play opens in Venice, Italy, at night. Iago, General Othello's ensign, and Roderigo, who is in love with Desdemona, are on the street outside of the home of Brabantio, Desdemona's father. Iago tells Roderigo of his hatred for Othello, primarily because Othello has promoted Michael Cassio ahead of Iago. They call out to Brabantio, telling him in crude language that his daughter is having a sexual encounter with Othello. Brabantio, enraged, goes with his servants to find the couple. Meanwhile, Iago goes to Othello to warn him of Brabantio's anger.
In the next scene, the duke and the senators discuss the Turkish threat on Cyprus. Brabantio, Othello, Cassio, and Roderigo, all enter and Brabantio levels his charges against Othello. Othello replies that he has not stolen Desdemona but has rather legally married her, although without her father's consent. Desdemona is sent for, and when she arrives, she concurs with Othello's summary of their relationship. The duke recognizes their marriage and tells Othello that he must go to Cyprus to defend against the Turks. Othello asks that his wife accompany him, and Desdemona says that she wants to go with him as well.
The act closes with an exchange between Iago and Roderigo. Iago says that Othello will soon change his mind and that Iago will help Roderigo win Desdemona. After Roderigo's exit, Iago reveals to the audience how much he hates Othello and Cassio and that he plans to ruin both of them.
Act 2 opens in Cyprus in a storm. The Turks have lost their entire fleet in the tempest. Ultimately, all the characters arrive in Cyprus, and Othello and Desdemona are lovingly reunited. Iago hatches his plot with Roderigo and instructs Roderigo to make Cassio angry this evening after Iago makes Cassio drunk.
In the next scene, Othello leaves to celebrate his nuptials with Desdemona. After Othello's departure, Iago manages to get Cassio to drink more than he should. As a consequence, when angered by Roderigo, Cassio gets into a fight with him and ends up seriously injuring the Cypriot governor Montano. Othello is called from his chambers to resolve the crisis. Othello is very angry and dismisses Cassio as an officer.
Cassio is distraught and bares his soul to Iago, whom he thinks is his friend. Iago sets his second scheme in motion by instructing Cassio to try to get back into Othello's favor through Desdemona.
As this act opens, Emilia speaks to Cassio and tells him she will work on his behalf with Desdemona. Then, Cassio speaks to Desdemona himself. Cassio leaves quickly when he sees Othello and Iago approaching. Iago makes an oblique comment about how he does not like seeing Cassio speaking with Desdemona. This begins to work on Othello and marks the beginning of his deterioration through jealousy. Desdemona and Othello make up, and Othello repeats his great love for her. However, Desdemona, through her unwitting support of Cassio to Othello, contributes to his growing jealousy. After Desdemona and Emilia exit, Iago goes to work on Othello again, suggesting that Cassio and Desdemona have betrayed Othello. He reminds Othello that Desdemona deceived her father when she married him, suggesting that Desdemona is not what she seems to be.
When Iago exits, Othello in a soliloquy contemplates what he will do if he finds that Desdemona has betrayed him, yet when Desdemona and Emilia come on stage, he says that he will not believe she is untrue. They exit together, but Desdemona drops her handkerchief accidentally.
Emilia picks up the handkerchief, saying that her husband has asked her to take it for him. She gives it to Iago then leaves the stage. Iago then says that he will leave the handkerchief in Cassio's lodgings to be used as evidence against him. Othello returns, and Iago works on him further, finally convincing him that Desdemona has been unfaithful. He tells Othello that he has seen her handkerchief in Cassio's possession. Othello vows to have Desdemona put to death.
When Desdemona enters, Othello asks her for the handkerchief. Desdemona is unable to produce it, and Othello takes this as evidence of her betrayal. Othello exits, angry.
In Act 4, Iago continues to torment Othello with innuendo and suggestions of Desdemona's dishonesty. Othello has a fit of epilepsy. When he recovers he sees Cassio and Iago speaking about Bianca, who arrives with the handkerchief that Cassio has given her. Othello recognizes it as Desdemona's handkerchief and thus resolves to kill both Cassio and Desdemona.
Emissaries from Venice arrive and observe Othello's cruelty to Desdemona. They question Iago about Othello's sanity, and Iago implies that Othello is if not mad, certainly dangerous.
In the next scene, Othello interrogates Emilia concerning Desdemona's fidelity. He is clearly growing more distraught by the moment. Desdemona describes the drastic change in her husband to Iago and Emilia. After the women exit, Roderigo enters and accuses Iago of playing false with him. Iago makes up a story that convinces Roderigo that he should kill Cassio.
Act 4 closes with Desdemona in her bedchamber, having been sent there with Emilia by Othello. There is a grim sense of foreboding over the scene.
As the act opens, Roderigo seriously wounds Cassio. Iago appears to save Cassio and implicates Roderigo to Ludovico, and Roderigo is killed. In the next scene, Othello is in the bedroom with Desdemona as he prepares to kill her. Desdemona protests her innocence, but Othello does not believe her. He kills her by smothering her with a pillow. Emilia comes to the room; Desdemona revives for just a moment to tell Emilia that she has killed herself and then she dies. Othello tells Emilia that he has killed her and says that Desdemona was false. Emilia contradicts him and offers proof that it was Iago who plotted against the pair. Iago threatens Emilia with his sword as she testifies against him, but he is stopped by Desdemona's uncle, Gratiano, and placed under arrest. Othello finally understands that he has killed the innocent Desdemona and asks why Iago has treated him thus. Iago refuses to respond. Othello begs for Cassio's forgiveness. Ludovico produces a letter from Roderigo that reveals the whole plan. There being no recourse, Othello kills himself with his own knife.
Bianca is a courtesan. While some have interpreted this to mean a prostitute, it is not clear at all from the text that this is the case, since only Iago describes her in this way. Bianca is a woman with whom Cassio is having an affair. Her importance to the play concerns the handkerchief plot, and while her role is small, much turns on the scene where Othello observes Cassio and Bianca discussing the handkerchief.
Brabantio is Desdemona's father and a Venetian senator. A very powerful man in Venice, Brabantio has invited Othello to his home many times to talk about military matters. He is very angry, however, when he learns that Othello has eloped with his daughter. Brabantio only appears in the opening scenes of the play, yet in these scenes, he reveals much about not only himself but about the general attitude toward daughters and marriage in his time. He reveals his belief that a daughter is a possession of her father until the father arranges her marriage for her. This process often includes receiving money and property from the prospective groom in return for the daughter's hand. Brabantio is clearly distraught over this aspect, as well as the fact that his daughter has married a foreigner and a black man. Ultimately, however, he blames Desdemona: he warns Othello that he should look to his wife, stating that her deception of her father might portend a similar deception of her husband. In the final scenes of the play, the audience learns that Brabantio has died in Venice, the result of the grief he suffered over Desdemona's marriage.
Cassio is a lieutenant to Othello. A handsome and honorable man, Cassio receives a promotion from Othello that enrages Iago, beginning the action of the play. Cassio is tricked by Iago into becoming drunk and striking the governor of Cyprus. This action leads to his dismissal from Othello's troop and the loss of Othello's affection for him. Under Iago's guidance, Cassio attempts to regain Othello's favor through Desdemona. However, this action makes Othello very jealous of Cassio. In addition, Cassio's interaction with the courtesan Bianca further enrages Othello. While Cassio is meant to be seen as the innocent wronged victim of Iago's machinations, it is true that he is unable to hold his liquor, that he engages in a brawl, nearly killing an important man, and that he treats Bianca very badly. Ultimately, Cassio's reputation is restored, and he becomes the deputy governor of Cyprus.
- Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi adapted Othello into the opera Otello in 1887. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1986, film director Franco Zeffirelli directed a film version of the opera starring Placido Domino, Katia Riciarelli, and Justino Diaz. The film was released in 2003 on DVD and VHS from MGM Home Video.
- In another adaptation, choreographer Lar Lubovitch interpreted Othello as a ballet. Performed by the San Francisco Ballet and released on DVD in 2003, the ballet featured Desmond Richardson, Yuan Yuan Tan, and Parrish Maynard. It is available through Kultur Video.
- A 2001 British television production set Othello in the contemporary London Metropolitan Police Department. While keeping the structure of the plot and story, the drama did not use Shakespeare's language. Originally produced by London Weekend Television, the drama is available on DVD from Acorn Media.
- Another film that used the basic plot of Othello but transforms the play into a modern setting with modern language is O. Directed by Tim Blake Nelson and starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett, and Julia Stiles, the film is set in a southern boys' private school, and the action revolves around a basketball team. The original release of the movie was in 2000, and it was released on DVD in 2003, available from Vidmark/Trimark.
- A more traditional filming of Othello was under-taken by the BBC as part of its Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series. In 1981, the BBC produced Othello, directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins, available through the BBC.
- Othello was adapted for film in 1995 by Castle Rock Entertainment. It was directed by Oliver Parker and starred Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago. It is available from Turner Home Entertainment.
- Famed director and actor Orson Wells directed himself in another adaptation of Othello in 1952. The film was released on DVD in 1999 and is available from Image Entertainment.
- Stuart Burge and John Dexter II directed Laurence Olivier in Othello in 1965. The film was released on VHS in 1996 and is available through Warner.
Desdemona is a wealthy, beautiful, young Venetian woman who falls in love and then elopes with Othello. She is naive to the ways of the world; however, she is well spoken and confident, as revealed to her statements in Othello's defense to the Venetian Senate. Desdemona leaves her home and family behind when she follows Othello to his posting in Cyprus. Unbeknownst to Desdemona, Iago uses her to plot against both Cassio and Othello. In Cyprus, Desdemona takes the part of the disgraced Cassio in pleading to her husband for clemency. This action, in turn, feeds Othello's jealousy. Desdemona's naivety prevents her from seeing that her pleading for Cassio enrages Othello. In addition, her innocent carelessness with the handkerchief that Othello has given her provides Iago with the vehicle he needs to "prove" Desdemona's infidelity to Othello. Desdemona proves herself to be brave, loving, and self-sacrificial in her final scene. Although she pleads for her life as she is being murdered, she continues to treat Othello with love. Indeed, when she rouses briefly after being smothered, she tells Emilia that she has killed herself and that she alone is responsible for her death. In doing so, she tries to save Othello from the guilt of her death. However, she dies as she tells this lie, a particularly awful moment. From a Catholic perspective, because she dies in a state of mortal sin, she sacrifices her eternal soul in a futile attempt to save Othello.
Emilia is Iago's wife and Desdemona's lady in waiting. The two are good friends; yet Iago persuades Emilia to steal Desdemona's handkerchief from her and give it to him. Emilia does so, but it seems clear that she has no idea of the terrible ramifications of this act. In the final scenes, when she realizes what she has done, she condemns Iago to Othello and reveals her role in the handkerchief plot. In this moment, Iago runs her through with his sword, killing her. While Emilia is surely culpable for her part in the plot, her utter surprise at what Iago has done in some ways exonerates her. Her love for Desdemona is genuine, and if she had fully understood the depths of her husband's villainy, it is unlikely that she would have cooperated with him. Nonetheless, she pays for her part in the deception with her death, although she dies in an honest confession of her own part, rendering her death less problematic than that of Desdemona.
Iago is Othello's ensign, or in some texts, ancient. Iago is arguably the most evil of all Shakespeare's villains and, ironically, perhaps the most interesting character in the canon of Shakespeare's work. He is complicated and difficult to understand because his hatred seems so motiveless. Like Hamlet, Iago is a wordsmith. Shakespeare gives Iago more lines than anyone else in the play, and many of these lines reveal a highly intelligent, yet highly malignant character. Through the course of the play, Iago offers five different reasons why he hates Othello and wants to bring him to ruin: he is angry that Cassio has been promoted above him; he believes that Othello has slept with Emilia; he believes that Cassio has slept with Emilia; he mentions that he loves Desdemona himself; and he feels ugly when he is with Cassio.
One of the most striking features of Iago is that he is so believable. He manages in the course of the play to deceive every character with whom he interacts. The deception is so complete that none of the characters doubts Iago enough to even double check the information. This point suggests that Iago is exceedingly persuasive, and his facility with language may be the reason for this. While Iago may appear fair, however, he is evil to the core. Perhaps the most evil action on Iago's part in the play is not his betrayal of all the other characters but his refusal to reveal to Othello his motivation for doing so. In the end, Iago performs verbal suicide, refusing to speak another word.
Othello is the Moorish general for whom the play is named. He is a middle-aged African, who has come to the aid of Venice in their war against the Turks. While in Venice, he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Desdemona. Against Venetian custom, he chooses to elope with Desdemona and must answer for his action to the Senate. At the same time, a new threat from the Turks means that the Venetians must send him to Cyprus. When the Senate approves of his marriage, Othello asks that his wife accompany him to Cyprus because he does not want to be without her. This request reveals his deep love for his wife, although it ultimately leads to her death.
From all accounts, Othello is a brave and strong military man, capable of saving the Venetians through his cool command. Other characters often refer to him as the "noble" Moor, and there is reference to his princely caste in Africa. As a black man, Othello is both imposing and exotic, to the Venetian characters in the play. He is meant to be impressive as well to the audience. Yet the issue of Othello's race was probably both enticing and troubling to Elizabethan audiences, as it certainly continued to be in the centuries of audiences to come.
Like Iago, Othello is one of the most complicated of Shakespeare's characters. He is, on the one hand, a larger than life hero. On the other hand, he seems to be preternaturally gullible in his impetuous acceptance of Iago's ordering of reality. On the one hand, he is a crafty and intelligent military leader. On the other hand, he has been called stupid by critics of the play. On the one hand, he is a romantic and passionate lover. On the other, he is a cold-blooded murderer. These inconsistencies or contradictions in his character are further complicated by the issue of race. It is difficult to know just what Shakespeare intended for his audience to make of Othello. Is Shakespeare attributing Othello's gullibility to his race? Or is he suggesting that it is because of his race that others choose to degrade him to such an extent? Is Othello heroic because he is black or in spite of it?
Roderigo is a companion of Iago. A wealthy gentleman, Roderigo is in love with Desdemona. Iago uses Roderigo's love for Desdemona as the device through which he gains both Roderigo's financing and complicity in his plots. Roderigo is villainous in the play; he works against particularly Cassio in what he thinks is a plot that will finally unite him in marriage with Desdemona. Of all the characters in the play, Roderigo is clearly the least intelligent. He plays the part of the heavy in Iago's machinations. After tricking Cassio early in the play, he falls victim to Cassio's sword at the end.
Traditionally, Othello was read as a cautionary tale about the destructive nature of the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Certainly, the play is filled with examples of jealousy, each contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere of plot and counterplot, all orchestrated by Iago. Iago himself attributes his hatred of Othello to numerous sorts of jealousy: he is jealous of Michael Cassio because he believes that Cassio has been promoted unjustly over him and because he believes that Cassio might have had an affair with his wife. Iago is jealous of Othello because he believes that Othello might have had sex with his wife and because he says that he loves Desdemona himself. It is almost as if Iago examines the various kinds of jealousy he finds in himself in order to exploit those jealousies in others. For example, he first manipulates Roderigo. Roderigo, in love with Desdemona, is very jealous of Othello and by extension of Cassio. His jealousy makes him an easy dupe for Iago's plotting. Likewise, Bianca is jealous of any woman in whom Cassio might be interested, and thus she also can be manipulated by Iago. Of course, the most destructive jealous rage that Iago incites is that within Othello. Iago uses his own fear of cuckoldry as the basis for his plot against Othello. By projecting his own feelings (and a common cultural fear) onto Othello, he is able to convince Othello that what he fears most, Desdemona's betrayal, is a reality. It is jealousy that weakens Othello's mind and reason, thus rendering him increasingly vulnerable to Iago's plots.
In the twentieth century and into the early 2000s, some productions and some critics suggested yet another way that jealousy might work as a motivating force in the play. As Steven Orgel notes in his article "Othello and the End of Comedy," "Tyrone Guthrie in 1938 had [Laurence] Olivier as a homosexual Iago furtively longing for Ralph Richardson's Othello." Such an interpretation suggests that Iago is in love with Othello himself or, alternatively, in love with Cassio. He concocts his dastardly plan as the result of jealousy, playing the role of spurned lover. While the interpretation may seem strange to some readers, it does reinforce the thematic concern over jealous rage. Furthermore, it provides motivation for Iago's actions, something that troubled viewers and critics alike since practically the first performance of the play.
Many of Shakespeare's plays refer to sex through joke and innuendo. Some, such as Much Ado About Nothing, even use a sexual pun in their titles. However, Othello stands out among Shakespeare's works as the most troublingly sexual of all plays. Indeed, it is the issue of sex that causes the downfall of both Othello and Desdemona.
In the opening scene, Iago and Roderigo awaken Brabantio to inform him of Desdemona's elopement. Their language is obscene and racist: "[A]n old black ram / [I]s tupping your white ewe," Iago shouts, "[Y]our daughter / and the Moor are making the beast with two backs."
Further, Shakespeare calls attention to the nuptial night between Othello and Desdemona by having it interrupted several times, first in Venice when Othello is called to the Senate and later in Cyprus when Cassio stabs Montano. This serves to produce extreme sexual tension; in the scenes shared by Othello and Desdemona, their language is highly charged with interrupted desire.
For Othello, thoughts of sexual infidelity are also at the heart of his total disintegration. After murdering Desdemona, the thoughts of her supposed promiscuity continue to eat at Othello. "Iago knows / That she with Cassio hath the act of shame / A thousand times committed," Othello says in his own defense.
The fear of cuckoldry runs deep in many of Shakespeare's plays; yet in most plays it is a matter of joke and play. In Othello, however, Shakespeare demonstrates how such fear, when attached with deeper issues of sexuality, can turn tragic.
Harmon and Holman in A Handbook to Literature define irony as "a broad term referring to the recognition of a reality different from appearance." Othello is an essentially ironic play in that Shakespeare creates such a wide divide between what appears to be real to the characters in the play and what appears to be real to the audience in the theater. He does this through several devices. In the first place, Shakespeare offers Iago some of the best language in the playwright's whole body of work. Consequently, Iago appears to the other characters as well spoken, appealing, and attractive. His language makes him someone they trust. This is evident from the number of times a character (particularly Othello) refers to Iago as "honest." Iago does not look like the villain he is. In this, Shakespeare deviates from the traditions of the Middle Ages in which evil characters always exhibit some degree of the evil on the surface. Indeed, in medieval romance, characters are as they appear: an ugly character is inevitably evil. Shakespeare plays with both audience and character horizon of expectation here. The first gap, then, is between what the characters and audience expect from such an attractive and well-spoken character and what he really is.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice as well as descriptions of Venice written during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What does the setting of Othello provide for the play thematically? What issues is Shakespeare able to explore in the play because of his choice of a Venetian setting?
- Research the status of women in England around 1600 both through primary sources such as William Gouge's Of Domestical Duties: Eight Treatises (1634) and through secondary sources such as Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500 1800 (1977). How does an understanding of this status inform a reading of Othello?
- Read accounts of the Moorish ambassador's visit to England in 1600 as well as selections from popular travel writing of the day. How does this contemporary information affect portrayal of Othello in the play?
- Watch at least four different versions of Othello or adaptations of the story of Othello on video or DVD. How do directorial decisions concerning casting, editing, and scripting affect an interpretation of the play?
Shakespeare also structures his scenes so that the play becomes increasingly ironic. Invariably, Iago speaks to other characters on stage, lying to them and manipulating them. Then, when the characters leave the stage, Iago reveals his inner thoughts to the audience. For example, in Act 1, Scene 3, Roderigo is about to lose heart in his attempts to win Desdemona. Iago engages in a long eloquent speech telling Roderigo to "put money in / thy purse." The speech is intended to manipulate Roderigo to continue to finance Iago's plans. As soon as he exits, Iago speaks aloud, although he is alone, in a soliloquy, revealing to the audience his feelings about Roderigo: "For I mine own gained knowledge should profane / If I would time expend with such a snipe / But for my sport and profit." Consequently, as the play continues, the audience knows increasingly more about Iago than do the other characters, intensifying the sense of irony in the play.
In addition, the stature of Shakespeare and of this play contribute to the ironic atmosphere. Virtually anyone watching or reading the play knows the basics of the story: man meets woman, man marries woman, villain lies, man gets jealous, man murders woman. Consequently, a naive viewing of the play is exceedingly rare. Thus, lines such as Brabantio's in Act 1, Scene 3, anticipate what is to come: "Look to her, Moor, if though hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee." In this fore-shadowing, the irony is doubled. Not only does the audience already know that Othello will believe that this prophecy has come to pass, the audience already knows that Othello will be wrong in that belief. Through devices such as this one, the play becomes thicker and thicker with irony.
One of the strangest features in the construction of this play is Shakespeare's ordering of time or chronology. There are two chronologies functioning simultaneously in the play. As Orgel notes, "Credit for discovering the double time scheme in Othello is always accorded to two ingenious Victorian critics, Nicholas Halpin and John Wilson, writing in Blackwood's in 1849; but they were merely the first critics to treat it systematically and consider it a good idea." Orgel goes on to summarize the problem. A careful reader notes that the opening act includes Othello and Desdemona's elopement and their discussion with the Venetian Senate. The audience is informed that Cassio and Othello will leave immediately the next day while Iago, Emilia, and Desdemona will make whatever plans they need to make and then make their way to Cyprus. Orgel points out that there is a chronological gap here between Act 1 and Act 2. Othello and Desdemona are reunited on Cyprus, but their trips have taken varying lengths of time. At the point they are reunited, the action resumes continuously, and only takes about thirty-three clock hours to go from Desdemona's arrival on Cyprus until her death.
At issue is, then, that the characters accused of infidelity with each other are never together at the same time and place for the infidelity to take place. Although Iago is able to convince Othello that Desdemona and Cassio have had an intimate affair, careful readers and viewers know that there has been no opportunity for such indiscretions. Likewise, when has Cassio had the opportunity to start his affair with Bianca? The "past" that the audience believes to have been constructed disappears on closer examination. One could argue that this is Shakespeare not paying attention to the details; however, it is just as likely, as Orgel argues, that Shakespeare plays with the time in order to illustrate how easy it is to "dupe" someone like Othello—or an audience, for that matter.
The Moorish Ambassador and the Banishment of Africans
One of the large questions facing Shakespeare scholars was that of Elizabethan attitudes toward Moors and others of different races. It is difficult to determine how many English people had actually even ever seen someone with a different color skin than their own. It is known that in 1596, Queen Elizabeth I ordered the banishment of ten "blackamoors" from her country. Shortly after this, English prisoners being held in Spain and Portugal were traded for "blackamoors." Thus, while there were evidently people of color in England at the time, it seems likely they were exceedingly rare.
In 1600, in an odd turn of events, Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud Anoun, the Moorish ambassador of Elizabeth I, came to England with his entourage. In a series of letters between Elizabeth and the king of the Barbary Coast, the two colluded for ways the North Africans and the English could work together against the Spanish. After a year or so of this fruitless negotiation as well as the frustration of the Englishman whose house had been commandeered as an embassy, the ambassador and his entourage left England. In the same year of 1601, Elizabeth ordered further expulsion of "blackamoors." It seems likely that the two events were related; it also seems likely that Shakespeare would have been aware of the Moorish ambassador's presence in London. How much of his play was influenced by these events is debatable, however.
Trade and Exploration
The Elizabethan and Jacobean ages were times of great exploration and trade. Like the Venetians of Othello, Elizabethans were merchants and traders, eager to open new avenues for raw goods and materials. Sometimes these goods also included traffic in human beings; from 1562 through 1568, Sir John Hawkes and others began slave trading from Africa to the West Indies. This disturbing practice continued unabated throughout the sixteenth century, and by 1600, an estimated 900,000 Africans had been transported to the Americas as slaves.
In the 1580s, English gentlemen such as Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh financed colonies in Newfoundland and Roanoke Island in an attempt to make a permanent presence on the North American mainland. In 1607, the Jamestown colony was founded in Virginia.
In 1600, Elizabeth also chartered the British East India Company for trade in the Eastern Hemisphere in an attempt to expand the British spice trade. Ultimately, the English conquered the whole of the Indian subcontinent through their ongoing mercantile expansion.
Shakespeare's interest in these explorations shows up clearly in the character of Othello as well as in plays such as The Tempest. The fascination with new frontiers and with new landscapes is also evident in the popularity of travel literature. For example, The History and Description of Africa, by Leo Africanus, was published in 1600. Thus, the seeds of empire and colonialism were sown during the sixteenth century; their harvest would be the globe-spanning British Empire of the nineteenth century.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1600s: By this date, it is estimated that some 900,000 Africans have been transported by English and other European slavers to the Americas.
2000s: Slavery has been abolished throughout the world, although many countries and people still feel the effects of the African Diaspora.
- 1600s: Women generally have little or no career options other than marriage and motherhood and are subordinate to men in every way.
2000s: Women have equal rights with men and are able to pursue careers outside the home.
- 1600s: Women are legally prohibited from acting on the stage so all female characters in Shakespeare's plays are acted by young boys.
2000s: Women actors play all female characters in Shakespeare; at times, women actors even play men's roles.
- 1600s: England is an absolutist state, although Elizabeth I demonstrates great ability to reach compromises with her various constituencies. James I, her successor, however, is a proponent of the absolute monarchy and attempts to control all functions of state.
2000s: The British monarchy is largely a figure-head, and Queen Elizabeth II, while important to her country as a symbol, has little or no political power.
Othello received considerable critical attention from the seventeenth century to the early 2000s. The earliest published critique of the play is that of Thomas Rymer in 1693. Rymer famously notes that the play serves as "a warning to all good Wives that they look well to their Linnen." Rymer seems particularly concerned that Othello does not function properly within the traditions of either comedy or tragedy. He writes, "There is in this Play some burlesk, some humour, and ramble of Comical Wit; some shew, and some Mimickry to divert the spectators: but the tragical part is, plainly, none other than a Bloody Farce, without salt or savour."
Samuel Johnson, the influential eighteenth-century literary critic and essayist also weighed in on Othello. He worried slightly that the strength of Iago's character could evoke admiration from the viewer: "There is always danger lest wickedness conjoined with abilities should steal upon esteem, though it misses of approbation; but the character of Iago is so conducted, that he is from the first scene to the last hated and despised."
The pace of Shakespearean criticism picked up in the nineteenth century with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt, among others writing on Othello. Like Johnson, Hazlitt was also concerned with the character of Iago. He writes, "The general groundwork of the character of Iago as it appears to us is not absolute malignity but a want of moral principle, or an indifference to the real consequences of the actions which the meddling perversity of his disposition and love of immediate excitement lead him to commit."
In the early twentieth century, scholar A. C. Bradley wrote what many consider to be the most influential volume of Shakespearean criticism of the century, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear," "Macbeth" (1904). He focused on the feelings of the reader or audience of Othello, calling Othello "the most painfully exciting and the most terrible" of all Shakespeare's plays. He continues, "From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader's heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation."
Subsequent criticism of Othello focused on issues such as gender, race, and history. John Russell Brown in his book Shakespeare: The Tragedies (2001) notes that Othello "may be judged the most innovative of Shakespeare's tragedies with regard to sexuality, gender, racial inheritance, and social relationships." Patricia Parker, writing in Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context, focuses on the history of the word "dilation," a word Shakespeare sprinkles liberally through his text. Parker succeeds in linking the word to issues of hiding, discovery, opening, closing, and female anatomy in her exploration of Othello.
Race, likewise, is at the center of much contemporary criticism. Many take as their starting point G. K. Hunter's seminal essay, "Othello and Colour Prejudice," first published in 1967 and reprinted in 1978. The essay was an early attempt to try to recover Elizabethan attitudes toward race.
Karen Newman directly confronted both issues of race and sexuality in a 1987 chapter in the book Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. She writes, "[F]or the white male characters of the play, the black man's power resides in his sexual difference from a white male norm."
Jyotsna G. Singh in 1998, on the other hand, considered how one teaches texts of "racial dissonance," particularly in the American classroom. Singh focused on Thomas Jefferson's use of literature for moral lessons and asks, "Given his naturalized fear of miscegenation, what moral lesson, one wonders, would Thomas Jefferson derive from Othello?" In an article that also appeared in 1998, Ferial J. Ghazoul enlarges the issue of race by exploring the role of the play in the Arab world. In doing so, he argues, "Othello offers a special case of relations among literatures. It is a product of an acculturation involving a double circulation of the Other and a complex intertwining that combines the effect of an African Arab (i.e., Othello and his background) on European imagination and, in a reversed way, its impact on Arabs/Africans."
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Andrews Henningfeld is a professor of English at Adrian College who writes widely on literature for educational publishers. In this essay, Andrews Henningfeld argues that the main characters belong to differing linguistic and discursive communities and are thus tragically unable to understand each other.
In Othello, Shakespeare offers several distinctive linguistic and discursive communities, including the patriarchal hegemony of the Venetian merchant class and the military hegemony of the soldiers on the field and in Cyprus. A linguistic community is one that shares a common language, while a discursive community is one that shares common forms of discourse such as ideas about law, business, or women. Further, "hegemony," according to Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, is a term often used by literary and cultural critics to refer to "the pervasive system of assumptions, meaning, and values … that shapes the way things look, what they mean, and therefore what reality is for the majority of people within a given culture." Thus, characters who find themselves cast as outsiders for reasons of race, ethnicity, social class, or gender, do not know or understand the values and assumptions that shape the reality of a hegemony. They may act or speak in ways that reveal their inability to "read" the structures of the culture in which they find themselves, sometimes with tragic results. Such is the case in Othello, a play about a black man attempting to function within a white mercantile culture, a white woman who marries a black military man, and a white Venetian soldier who destroys them both.
To begin to understand the relationship between the Venetians and Othello, a reader needs to remember that Venice is a mercantile society, one whose values are based on the buying and selling of goods. Turks represent such a threat to the Venetians because they restrict trade, the life-blood of Venetian society, by restricting ship traffic on the Mediterranean Sea. Othello is clearly an outsider in Venetian society. He is of a different race and different nationality, having come from North Africa to fight for Venice against the Turks. Moreover, Othello comes from a different discursive and linguistic community; he is not a native speaker of the culture or the language of Venice. He tells the Senate, "Rude am I in speech … / And little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broils and battle." Othello is correct in this assessment. He does not speak the language of buying and selling, the guarded language of negotiation and barter, but rather speaks the language of a soldier, rough and rude, straightforward and without guile.
His contribution to Venetian safety is well-documented; he is called repeatedly the "noble Moor" or the "valiant Moor" or the "brave Moor." Because of this record and reputation, he has been welcomed into the hearts and homes of Venetian citizens. Othello tells the Senate that Desdemona's "father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes / That I have past." Clearly, Othello has been an honored guest in Brabantio's home. Yet Othello, as an outsider, fails to understand the hegemony of which Brabantio is a part. In believing himself welcome in Brabantio's home, he has also believed himself worthy of Brabantio's daughter. What Othello reveals, however, in his elopement with Desdemona is his failure to "read" the culture in which he finds himself. In Venetian culture, daughters obey their fathers, and fathers arrange marriages for their daughters. What Othello does not and cannot understand (as a linguistic and discursive outsider) is that an elopement is a kind of theft, depriving Brabantio of the money he could command from a prospective husband in the marriage market. While a military man takes what he wants, a merchant negotiates a sale. Thus, Othello and Brabantio are not only linguistically speakers of two different languages, they are also members of two radically different discursive communities.
At an even more fundamental level, Othello does not understand that he, like Desdemona, is a commodity; he has sold his military prowess to the Venetians for money. As such, he is "owned" by the Venetians, in much the same way that Desdemona is "owned" by her father. As such, according to Venetian hegemony, Othello does not have agency; rather, he is to be acted upon, rather than acting, to go where he is sent and do what he is told to do. Why then does the duke try to quell Brabantio's objection to the marriage and seem to approve of the elopement?
In the first place, Venice is both a merchant society and a patriarchal society. As noted above, fathers control their daughters. Indeed, in all ways, men control the goods, products, and means of production in this society. Daughters are commodities, something that can be bought and sold on the marriage market. As such, Desdemona does not have intrinsic worth to the entire society; rather, her value is to her father in how much money he can accrue through the negotiations leading to her marriage. Her worth, then, is of limited value to the hegemony, although her rebellion is a cause of grave concern to the patriarchal power structure. Yet an even graver danger looms on the horizon: the immediate Turkish threat to Cyprus.
Thus, the second reason that the duke recognizes Othello's marriage to Desdemona becomes clear. Venice needs Othello to go to Cyprus to quell the imminent danger from the Turks. Giving Othello a Venetian woman becomes a form of payment for Othello's service. Moreover, because Othello wants Desdemona with him, the duke is able to remove the rebellious element from Venetian society. He is able, in this move, to accomplish several goals: he can pay off the Moor in female flesh, a bargain for all the Venetians save Brabantio; he can protect his city-state from the Turks by sending the best soldier to lead the battle; and he can isolate Desdemona from other women of Venice who might be encouraged to form their own alliances with prospective husbands, thus depriving their fathers of their rightful marriage profits.
Once removed to Cyprus, it is Desdemona who becomes the outsider. Not only is she far away from the protective patriarchal structures of Venetian society, a hegemony that she flaunts in her choice to marry Othello, she is now in an entirely different discursive community, that of the military. She is surrounded by men who are pledged to fight for and with her husband to the death. Her misunderstanding of this is evident in her willingness to speak for Michael Cassio to her husband. Were she a member of the military hegemony, she would know that a commander's word cannot be undone. Once dismissed, Cassio is always dismissed. For Othello to do otherwise would be to undermine his command. Further, military language is masculine, and Desdemona also does not "speak" the language of men. If she were to speak it, she would also realize that her husband would find her support of Cassio suspect. Her ignorance of the discursive communities and of their languages costs her dearly.
Shakespeare also puts one more ingredient in the mix: Iago. If Othello and Desdemona are outsiders, then Iago is the quintessential insider, a rare linguistic wizard, a polyglot who can speak the language of trade, of business, and of soldiering equally well. This facility with words and structures is what shifts the play from potential comedy to certain tragedy. As a native Venetian, Iago fully understands the sly wheeling and dealing of businessmen. "Put money in thy purse!" he admonishes Roderigo. He barters promises of Desdemona's favor in exchange for Roderigo's capital. He offers his comrades at arms advice. He entices his wife to betray her lady. In each of these dealings, using the deep structures of culture and language, he successfully moves himself toward his goal: the utter destruction of Othello.
Finally, there is one more language Iago speaks, and he does so just as subtly and cannily as he does the others, so subtly and cannily that the audience is never fully aware of how they, too, have been duped. Iago speaks the language of theater. In many scenes, Iago cajoles and flatters and has his way with the other characters. Once these characters leave the stage, however, Iago turns to the audience and reveals his "real" motivation. Theatergoers, too, belong to a hegemony of sorts and have unspoken, but firmly held, assumptions and values about what constitutes the "real" in a play. For example, an audience knows that when a character dies on the stage, the actor is not really dead. There is another assumption: soliloquies reveal the inner thoughts of a character. What the audience does not do, however, is to doubt the truth of what they hear in a soliloquy.
Iago is a troubling case, however. He demonstrates repeatedly that he does not speak the truth. "I am not what I am," he says. Yet the audience believes whatever he tells them. He hates Othello because he is jealous of Cassio. He believes Othello has sexual intercourse with Emilia. He also think Cassio had intimate relations with Emilia. He loves Desdemona. All the while the audience wonders how it is that Othello can believe Iago's obvious lies, the audience itself believes what Iago reveals when alone with them.
As the play closes, each of the characters demonstrates his or her final confrontation with the linguistic and discursive communities of the play. In the final act, Desdemona plays out the role demanded of her by the patriarchal hegemony in which she has been encultured, a hegemony that demands devotion and obedience to a husband. She sacrifices her immortal soul in order to protect Othello. When Emilia begs her to tell her who has killed her, Desdemona replies, "Nobody. I myself."
In the final act, Othello loses language altogether. As John Russell Brown suggests, "Increasingly during the last scene, Othello speaks of what is happening very simply, as if his ability to say more is entirely spent." He can no longer even attempt to speak the language of Venice, and he dies in his own nearly wordless grief. He cries, "O Desdemon! dead Desdemon; dead. O, O!"
And in the final act, Iago, the polyglot, chooses to remain silent. Language does not desert him, as it does Othello; rather, he voluntarily leaves the discursive communities of Venice, the military, and of theater in his final act of treachery, choosing to abandon his role as playmaker. "You know what you know," he says to Othello and to the audience. It is left to the other characters to piece together the story, like foreigners speaking a second language, badly.
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on Othello, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay excerpt, Orgel focuses on themes of patriarchy and patronage in Othello in examining the play's evolution from comedy into tragedy.
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Source: Stephen Orgel, "Othello and the End of Comedy," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 56, Shakespeare and Comedy, edited by Peter Holland, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 105–16.
In the following essay, Bates examines how Shakespeare's narrative choices, particularly those of word play and borrowing from Ovid's Metamorphoses, drive the central themes in Othello.
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Text Not Available
Source: Catherine Bates, "Weaving and Writing in Othello," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 46, edited by Stanley Wells, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 51–60.
Bradley, A. C., Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on "Hamlet," "Othello," "King Lear," "Macbeth," 1904, reprint, Macmillan, 1981, p. 176.
Brown, John Russell, "Othello: Sexuality and Difference," in Shakespeare: The Tragedies, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 190–91, 225.
Ghazoul, Ferial J., "The Arabization of Othello," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 50, No.1, Winter 1998, pp. 1–31.
Harmon, William, and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., Prentice Hall, 1996, pp. 277–78.
Hazlitt, William, "Iago, Heroic Tragedy, and Othello," in "Othello": Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, by William Shakespeare, edited by Edward Pechter, Norton, 2004, originally published in 1814.
Hunter, G. K., "Othello and Colour Prejudice," in his Dramatic Identities and Cultural Tradition: Studies in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries, Liverpool University Press, 1978, pp. 31–59, originally published in 1967.
Johnson, Samuel, The Plays of Shakespeare, in Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, edited by Bertrand H. Bronson with Jean O'Meara, Yale University Press, 1986, pp. 358–59, originally published in 1765.
Murfin, Ross, and Supryia M. Ray, "Hegemony," in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, St. Martin's Press, Bedford Books, 2003, p. 197.
Newman, Karen, "'And Wash the Ethiop White': Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello," in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, Routledge, 1987, p. 151.
Orgel, Stephen, "Othello and the End of Comedy," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 56, 2003, pp. 105–16.
Parker, Patricia, Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context, University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 229–72.
Pechter, Edward, ed., "Othello": Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, by William Shakespeare, Norton, 2004.
Rymer, Thomas, A Short View of Tragedy, in Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, Vol. 2, 1693–1733, edited by Brian Vickers, Routledge, 1974, pp. 26–30, 54, originally published in 1693.
Singh, Jyotsna G., "Racial Dissonance/Canonical Texts: Teaching Early Modern Texts in the Late Twentieth Century," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 26, 1998, pp. 70–79.
Bell, Millicent, "Shakespeare's Moor," in Raritan, Vol. 21, No. 4, Spring 2002, pp. 1–14.
Bell delivers an in-depth character analysis of Othello.
Crowdus, Gary, "Sharing an Enthusiasm for Shakespeare: An Interview with Kenneth Branagh," in Cineaste, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1998, pp. 34–41.
Kenneth Branagh is a leading Shakespearean actor of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. This interview captures both his enthusiasm and his thoughts on playing Iago in the Oliver Parker film.
Erickson, Peter, "The Moment of Race in Renaissance Studies," in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 26, 1998, pp. 27–36.
Erickson offers a cogent discussion of the three ways race can be handled in a discussion of Othello.
Hadfield, Andrew, ed., A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on William Shakespeare's "Othello," Routledge, 2003.
Hadfield has compiled a very useful and usable collection of primary sources and critical interpretations as well as providing chapters on the work in performance.
McDonald, Russ, The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare: An Introduction with Documents, 2d ed., St.Martin's Press, Bedford Books, 2001.
This book has useful introductory sections and a wealth of excerpts from primary documents, arranged thematically.
O'Dair, Sharon, "Teaching Othello in the Schoolhouse Door: History, Hollywood, Heroes," in the Massachusetts Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, Summer 2000, pp. 215–36.
O'Dair offers a new historical approach to the play, examining particularly the implications of Othello in American classrooms.
THE LITERARY WORK
A tragedy set in Venice and Cyprus around 1571; first performed for King James I in 1604.
Desdemona, the young daughter of a powerful citizen of Venice, marries Othello, an older Moorish commander. Doomed from the start, Othello and Desdemona become embroiled in a terrible plot of jealousy and revenge that results in tragedy on a grand scale.
William Shakespeare adapted the tragic Italian tale of Othello to appeal to a British audience and, in particular, to the new king, James I. Shakespeare was a child at the time of the Cyprus Wars and was familiar with the famous Battle of Lepanto—a grand victory for Christian forces that serves as the backdrop to the main action of the play. The religious and social conflicts depicted in the drama reflect events and changes occurring in both Italy and England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello was a tale that, despite the Venice setting, addressed concerns of his own time.
Up until the 1500s, Venice was a powerful, independent state that controlled territories throughout Italy and the Mediterranean. Situated on the Adriatic Sea at the gateway of the overland route to the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia, it was a thriving port that served as the link between the Far East spice trade and the European market. Venetians (citizens of Venice) became wealthy as brokers of exotic spices and manufacturers of silk imported from the East.
When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1499 and established a sea route from Europe to the Far East, Venice began to decline. The city reeled under the consequences of a public panic that forced most major banks to close and a devastating outbreak of bubonic plague. The state became increasingly weak and vulnerable to outside attack.
By the late 1400s the once-powerful Venetian military was also in decline, struggling to man its formidable naval fleet. The increasingly wealthy and luxury-loving citizens of the city showed little appetite for risking their lives at war. Where once it had been considered a duty or honor to serve the state in battle, military involvement during these years became less appealing, and as a result the state was defended mainly by reluctant recruits, convicts, and debtors.
As Venetian defense capabilities waned, the Ottomans (Turkish rivals whose empire included the Middle East, Asia Minor, and North Africa) initiated attacks on Venetian territories in the Mediterranean in 1463. Venice suffered a series of humiliating defeats. In several instances, a majority of Venetian forces retreated or surrendered to the advancing enemy without engaging in combat. The Turks captured key Venetian outposts and by 1500 controlled virtually all of mainland Greece, territory that had previously belonged to Venice.
Turkish religious wars
The war between the Turks and the Venetians raged for more than 100 years. The conflict grew from a territorial battle into a religious war. The Ottoman Turks were Muslim, while the Venetians were Christian. To Christian Europeans, the threat of Muslim Turk control of the Mediterranean was a serious one, for such control increased the potential for a Turkish invasion of western Europe. As the Turks captured key Venetian territories, including the island of Cyprus, Europeans became increasingly alarmed. Several states rallied to Venice’s defense and joined in the war effort in the name of Christianity. Spain, Genoa, and the Holy Roman Empire—together known as the “Holy League”—allied with Venice against the Turks, who formed their own Muslim alliance with Berbers, Levantines, and corsairs (pirates) of the Barbary Coast.
CERVANTES AND SHAKESPEARE
Miguel de Cervantes, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s who later wrote Don Quixote, fought at the Battle of Lepanto as a twenty-four-year-old Spanish soldier. In the battle he injured his left hand, a wound that maimed him for life. Shakespeare and Cervantes never met, but they died on the same day—April 23, 1616—and became two of the best known and most acclaimed authors of their time.
War of Cyprus
The island of Cyprus, a Venetian territory, was vital to the economy of Venice. It produced honey, saffron, cotton, wax, salt, sugar, indigo, and wine, as well as abundant tax revenue. Its geographic location, however—close to the Ottoman Empire and distant from Venice—made it a likely target for Turkish invasion. By September 1570 almost all of Cyprus was in the hands of the Turks, and the Holy League had been formed to recapture it. In September 1571 Pope Pius V predicted a Christian victory over the Turks and backed his vision with strong military participation. A fleet of 209 ships was amassed, and the allied forces set sail from Italy toward Cyprus, intent on defeating the Turks and retaking the island for Venice.
Cyprus was well fortified, though, and the Turkish fleet of 309 ships outnumbered the attackers. In addition, Venetian troops had suffered a crushing defeat at the Port of Famagusta in Cyprus after holding out against the much more formidable Turkish military for over a year. The victorious Turkish forces subsequently killed the leaders of the Venetian troops in brutal fashion. News of the fall of Famagusta reached Venice’s troops at sea. They realized Cyprus was totally lost and probably could not be recaptured. Rather than abandon hope, though, the Christian forces became enraged over the deaths of their comrades and vowed revenge against the Turks. With that in mind, they sailed forth to meet their enemy at sea.
Confident in their ability to defeat the Venetians and their allies in the Holy League after their earlier successes, the Turks deployed their fleet to attack the approaching Europeans. The enemies met at the Port of Lepanto and a famous sea battle ensued. The ships of the League, which sailed under an azure flag that depicted Christ on the cross, encircled the Turks, whose ships flew white and gold flags inscribed with phrases from the Muslim holy book, the Koran. For two hours the bloody conflict raged. Kettle drums pounded as cannons fired, swords clashed, and arrows soared. Though greatly out-numbered by the Turks, the League managed to trap the Turkish fleet in the Lepanto harbor and set fire to hundreds of their ships. The commander Sebastiano Venier, described as a ferocious old Venetian, fought valiantly against the Ottomans and helped ensure the League’s victory. The Turks were forced to retreat, their fleet in tatters. The Holy League lost 7,600 men and 12 ships in the battle, but the Turks lost 240 ships and 30,000 men. It was a stunning victory for the Holy League and was seen by some Christians as a validation of the pope’s prophecy. Although Cyprus was not recaptured, the victory restored European confidence and virtually ended the Turkish wars. Venice emerged once again as a formidable power with a strong military.
Late sixteenth-century Venice was known by many as a city of sin. Venetians were famous for their wild dress and behavior. Upper-and middle-class existence was often marked by flamboyant costumes, elaborate carnivals, a passion for gambling, and sexual practices that resulted in epidemic rates of syphilis. Even the popes of the era were allowed to have intimate relations with women; they fathered a number of children during this period. In Othello Shakespeare portrays this liberal atmosphere in the celebration that follows the defeat of the Turks. Each Venetian in attendance is given full freedom to engage in “what sport and revels his addiction leads him” (Shakespeare, Othello, 2.2.5-6). The general climate of debauchery helps explain how easily Othello could be convinced of his wife’s adultery.
The Moor question
The Moors were originally a nomadic people of northern Africa. They became Muslims in the eighth century and invaded Spain in 711, where they established a kingdom (the Umayyad emirate) in the south at Cordoba. The transplanted Moorish culture thrived in Spain, establishing splendid centers in other Spanish cities as well. But the Moors never established a strong central government, and by the fifteenth century the various Moorish strongholds had surrendered to stronger rulers, including Christians like Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Most of the Moors were driven from Spain to other European countries.
In sixteenth-century Italy, the terms “Moor” and “pagan” were almost interchangeable. By and large, Moors were considered barbarians, were treated as slaves, and often were made scapegoats for crimes or seen as causes of society’s problems. Though attitudes slowly began to shift by the seventeenth century, when the slave trade died out, the Moor was still considered a second-class citizen.
Some Moors, however, were able to escape the negative stereotypes and integrate successfully into Venetian society. Citizens of Venice, in fact, insisted that theirs had always been a multiracial and multicultural society. They pointed out that in the fifteenth century the city had imprisoned a prominent nobleman for raping a black slave girl. Such instances of social justice may lend legitimacy to Shakespeare’s depiction of Othello, a Moor, as a general in the Venetian army. As the play shows, he was still subject to racism. At the same time, however, he was respected for his ability as a warrior. The treatment of the Othello character illustrates both a shift toward tolerance and the lingering seeds of prejudice in the real Venice of the late 1500s.
A second explanation for how Shakespeare’s Othello could have become such a powerful member of the Venetian military is that the historical model for this character may not have been a Moor at all. Some Venetians insist that an earlier writer named Cinthio (or Cinzio)—who has been cited as a source used by Shakespeare—and Shakespeare himself misinterpreted the story of a Venetian general named Moro who hailed from Morea. A statue of Moro dressed in battle armor even stands outside the palace at the Campo dei Carmini.
Set in Venice in approximately 1571, Othello opens with the Venetians at war against the Turks over possession of Cyprus. Iago, Othello’s “ancient” or ensign, expresses his anger at being passed over for promotion and plots revenge. Othello, a Moor and distinguished war hero, has appointed Michael Cassio as lieutenant and has just secretly married Desdemona, a much younger Venetian. The jealous and evil Iago desperately wants to destroy Othello and Cassio. To that end, he first tries to get Othello’s marriage annulled. Appealing to Desdemona’s father’s racist attitude, Iago announces brashly to him: “Sir, y’are robb’d... an old black ram is tupping your white ewe” (Othello, 1.1.87, 89-90). Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, is outraged by the news and becomes convinced that Othello has used witchcraft or black magic to lure his daughter into marriage.
REVERSING NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES
The Moors were ousted from Spain in 1492 by the Catholics, who, like the Venetians, considered them pagans and treated them as intruders who were disruptions to Christian society. Yet Shakespeare paints Othello as the Christian leader of allied forces that include Spain. Othello appears as the exact opposite of the negative stereotype so commonly associated with Moors of the day.
Brabantio levels his accusation at Othello at a meeting of the duke’s war council, which has been convened to discuss an impending Turkish attack on Venetian-controlled Cyprus. Othello and Desdemona eloquently explain how they fell in love. Othello had told Desdemona his life story—including his days as a slave and his exploits as a victorious general defending Venice—and she naturally fell in love with him. Hearing this, the duke declares: “I think this would win my daughter too” (Othello, 1.3.173). Brabantio, however, is not convinced and plants a seed of doubt about his daughter’s honesty in Othello’s mind. He tells him: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee” (Othello, 1.3.295-96).
Brabantio’s words play right into Iago’s next plot. Iago makes plans to destroy Othello and Desdemona’s union by arousing Othello’s jealousy. The devious Iago schemes to make it appear as if Cassio is Desdemona’s lover, thereby ruining the marriage and Cassio at the same time. Once the issue of Othello’s marriage is settled, the duke’s council makes plans for the defense of Cyprus against the Turks. Othello is sent to Cyprus as its new governor, and Desdemona is to follow in a later ship, escorted by Iago. Meanwhile, a great storm nearly destroys the Turkish fleet, and the ship carrying Othello has disappeared, Iago arrives in Cyprus with Desdemona, and shortly afterward Othello too arrives safely.
Iago travels to the city to set his evil plot in motion. First, he gets Cassio drunk and incites him to fight a fellow officer. When Othello learns of the fight, he reduces Cassio’s rank. Desdemona innocently promises to help Cassio get his position back. Iago baits Othello, openly questioning why Desdemona should take such a keen interest in Cassio. He further hints that a white woman marrying a black man is somehow “unnatural” and suggests that it is only a matter of time until she will return to her “natural” course and pick a Venetian man. Iago implies that the relationship between Desdemona and Cassio could be a romantic one. In reality, such suggestions are utterly false. Desdemona is completely in love with Othello, and Cassio has no designs on her.
Iago quickly manages to paint a picture of adultery. Playing on Othello’s insecurity—he’s an outsider among the Venetians and has been subjected to racist treatment much of his life—Iago spins a web of lies that turns Othello into a man consumed by jealousy. Othello believes he finds proof of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness when he finds Cassio has been in possession of her handkerchief. Convinced of her guilt, Othello confronts Desdemona and smothers her while she lies in her bed. Emilia, Desdemona’s maid, enters as Desdemona, near death, comes to momentarily and protests her innocence—and Cassio’s. Emilia explains to Othello Desdemona’s innocence and Iago’s lies. Iago’s evil plot is finally uncovered, but Emilia pays for her honesty with her life when Iago, who has arrived on the scene, stabs her in an effort to keep her quiet. Overcome with anger and remorse, Othello first wounds Iago and then kills himself. Iago is apprehended and it is clear that he will be punished for his crimes, but it is too late for Othello and Desdemona, who have been destroyed by the dark power of jealousy and hatred.
Like Romeo and Juliet , (also covered in Literature and Its Times). Othello was apparently based on a collection of Italian tales, in this case a story included in Gli Hecatommithi by Giavanni Baptista Giraldi Cinthio. The specific naming of Desdemona and her marriage to a Moorish general is owed to him. Other details may have come from Geoffrey Fenton’s Certain Tragicall Discourses, a book published in 1567 that Shakespeare apparently consulted to locate plots for his tragedies. The story also incorporates details from the true history of the Cyprus Wars and the Battle of Lepanto. The play may or may not have been expressly written for King James I, but its subject matter was certainly of great interest to him. Before becoming king, James wrote a poem about the Holy League’s famous victory at Lepanto and was known as an expert in witchcraft. Shakespeare may have added several witchcraft references and shaped his portrayal of the evil Iago with the king’s interest in mind.
Africans in Elizabethan England
The English of the sixteenth century had access to a variety of source materials regarding Africa, some factual and some fictional. Legends and tall tales rooted in the popular imagination—due in some part to classical historians’ stories of monsters and strange creatures—gradually became replaced by the more accurate accounts of sea and land travelers, who also provided more accurate maps than before. It has been suggested that Shakespeare probably knew one of these books, A Geographical History of Africa by Johannes Leo Africanus, a North African Moor, and that its background material on, for example, the adventures of its author may have influenced the creation of Othello. In addition, with the advent of the slave trade in the 1560s, more and more Africans began to be brought into England. From the mid-sixteenth century onward, therefore, the English in London and other ports had ample exposure to both dark-skinned and light-skinned Africans. They also encountered blacks as free men in official capacities; they traded with them, and in 1600 a Moorish nobleman was sent as an ambassador to Queen Elizabeth.
The reign of King James
At the time the drama was written, King James I had just ascended to the English throne, ending years of bitter feuding over who would succeed Queen Elizabeth I. Though James took the throne peacefully, the religious and social conflicts that marked the end of Elizabeth’s tenure remained. Protest against the powers of the Church of England increased, as did calls for lower taxes and fairer representation in Parliament. The country began to divide into religious and political fronts. Puritans broke from the mainstream and threatened to close theaters and taverns, while moderates urged religious and racial tolerance. The debate over reforming the established church grew as heated as the challenge to the power of the monarch, and in 1642 civil war finally erupted. James’s son and successor, Charles I, was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s government in 1649.
Though the nation was rocked by turbulent debates about various issues, the arts flourished under King James. Dramatists such as Shakespeare received as much or even more support from the king than they had under Queen Elizabeth, who was considered a great patron of the arts. James, who considered himself an artist and intellectual as well as a theologian, enjoyed reading and writing poetry. He sponsored his own theater company, the King’s Men, for which Shakespeare was the primary playwright. The King’s Men performed regularly at court. In addition to writing new works for the king’s company, Shakespeare also revived several of his older plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, which James had not seen at its opening.
Religious conflict and prejudice
As a largely Protestant nation, England was often in conflict with neighboring Catholic countries such as Spain. In 1588, the Spanish Armada was pummeled by a sudden, violent storm while on its way to attack England. This event made many people in England believe that God had intervened on their behalf as a sign of approval of their Anglican Protestant religion. Similarly, in Othello the Turkish fleet is destroyed at sea by a wild wind storm, a development that brings victory to the Christian Venetians. Shakespeare does not, however, paint a perfectly rosy or one-sided picture of religion and holy wars. He shows the hypocrisy of so-called Christians such as Iago and the ill-treatment suffered by truly Christian characters such as Othello. Clearly the most Christian of all the men at the outset of the play, Othello is accused of being a pagan and practicing witchcraft simply because he has dark skin.
The term “Moor” historically refers to the lighter-skinned African race of partial Arab descent, rather than the darker-skinned blacks of Africa. Yet Shakespeare, like other men of his day, does not draw any distinction between the two types and portrays Othello as a distinctively black African, in full appreciation of the racial tensions that would be evoked by his union with the fair Desdemona.
Shakespeare’s depiction of Othello reflects an emerging shift in attitude in seventeenth-century British society. Prejudices and long-held notions about the roles of men and women and racial and religious differences were beginning to break down. By the end of the civil wars—which Shakespeare did not live to see—some British began to realize that “individuals... could hold differing views about foreign policy, the nature of Christ’s presence in the sacrament... without necessarily precipitating social chaos” (Abrams, p. 1053). The growing concept of tolerance, an underlying but powerful idea in Othello, may be seen as affecting the subsequent course of British history.
Shakespeare’s emerging genius
By 1604, the year that Othello was first performed, Shakespeare had established himself as London’s premiere playwright. The tragedies that had beset his personal life—the deaths of his son and father, imprisonment of his patron Southampton, and execution of his friend the Earl of Essex—were in the past, and he was able to devote his time to developing his skills as a writer.
Othello is considered an inspired play that cemented Shakespeare’s popularity with the new government and the general population. To his audience, tragedies were considered the highest form of drama and something all legitimate playwrights should strive to perfect. Othello was another of Shakespeare’s attempts to master the form; he had had a similar goal when he wrote Hamlet (also covered in Literature and Its Times) some three years earlier.
The major issues raised in the play—jealousy, racism, aging, evil, social and religious conflict—illustrate Shakespeare’s growth as a playwright and his interest in a wide range of contemporary issues. Whereas many of his previous plays had dealt primarily with political intrigue, Othello examined social issues and human behavior; politics are here relegated to secondary status. In looking at the subject of age—and situations wherein romance was complicated by differences in age—Shakespeare may have drawn on personal experience. Shakespeare himself, it has been speculated, was previously involved in some sort of love triangle with his patron, Southampton, and an unnamed mistress. Whether true or not, Shakespeare did express much jealousy and frustration in his own poetry—sentiments that are also exhibited by Othello. Shakespeare remarks in Sonnet 57, for example, that love has made him a slave:
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
... Nor dare I question with my jealous thought
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose,
But like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save where you are....
(Shakespeare, “Sonnet 57,” lines 1-2, 9-12)
Othello’s lines, like Shakespeare’s poems, show a man confused and frustrated by love. Othello’s lament “I think my wife be honest and think she is not” (Othello, 3.3.389-90) is strikingly similar to one found in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138: “When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her, though I know she lies” (Shakespeare, “Sonnet 138,” lines 1-2).
A common experience
When it became apparent that Shakespeare was one of the great writers of his age, rival playwrights harshly criticized his works. Writers from Cambridge and Oxford universities denounced the output of this playwright who was self-educated and had not gone to college. Even the great dramatist and Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare wrote too much and should have “blotted” or deleted a thousand lines (Rowse, p. 49). By the time he wrote Othello, then, Shakespeare, like his main character, had distinguished himself and experienced the resentment of others firsthand.
Abrams, M. H. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 1986.
Bevington, David. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. London: Scott, Foresman, 1980.
Crow, John. Italy: A Journey through Time. New York: Harper & Row, 1965.
Kay, Dennis. Shakespeare: His Life, Work and Era. London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1991.
Rowse, A. L. What Shakespeare Read and Thought. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1981.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Edited by David Bevington. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1988.
Thubron, Thomas. The Venetians. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980.
Wright, Louis B. Shakespeare’s England. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.